Tisbury considers new sewer policy to go with the flow
Martha's Vineyard Times File Photo
The possibility of ending Tisbury's restriction on additional sewer flow allotments has flushed out debate among business owners, town planners, and board members regarding decisions on present and future wastewater treatment needs.
Tisbury's board of public works (BPW) commissioners held a public hearing on August 24 to review a policy they set when the town built its waste collection system and treatment facility in 2004. At that time, the BPW agreed to restrict additional flow requests to 10 percent of a property's authorized flow, or if greater than 220 gallons per day, to cap it at that.
"Now that we've been at it for six years, and because we're getting a number of requests for significant alterations, the commissioners decided to hold a public hearing to see if there would be any major objection to removing that restriction," department of public works (DPW) director Fred LaPiana explained in a recent telephone conversation with The Times.
Tisbury's sewer district includes all the downtown area of Vineyard Haven, from Main Street starting around Le Grenier Restaurant to the Lagoon Pond drawbridge. The wastewater collection system and treatment facility was designed to serve a mix of about 135 commercial and residential properties, Mr. LaPiana said. Of those, about 60 to 70 percent are businesses. The wastewater plant is located at the DPW on High Point Lane.
To understand what sewer flow means in practical terms, Mr. LaPiana explained that under the state's Title 5 guidelines for assigning new flow, a restaurant is allotted 35 gallons per day per seat. Under Tisbury's 220-gallon a day restriction, that would limit a new restaurant, or one that wants additional seats, to six.
"So with any change of use for a restaurant application, it would be very difficult for a restaurant to make money with only six seats," Mr. LaPiana said.
The restriction also limits additional allotments for residential properties hooked up to the sewer to 110 gallons per day per bedroom.
"The thought behind the 220-gallon figure was to allow people on the system to increase their homes by two bedrooms," Mr. LaPiana said. "That would allow some alterations to residences for low-income housing, apartments, that kind of thing."
Since Tisbury's sewer system began operation, Mr. LaPiana said the BPW has received a number of flow change requests linked to building renovations, especially this year, following the town's vote in April to allow beer and wine in restaurants.
"Basically, for the practical concerns of doing any alterations to a building, regardless of those associated with serving beer and wine, that restriction on sewer flow requests was extremely restrictive," Mr. LaPiana said. "We did that originally because we wanted to make sure we didn't overtax an already under-designed system."
As an alternative to the flow restriction and as a safeguard for the system's ongoing limitations, Mr. LaPiana said the BPW commissioners propose that they be allowed to issue the excess capacity at the plant to the town's sewer flow review board (SFRB), based on actual flows. Then the SFRB would deliberate the merits of any requests for additional flow and make recommendations to the BPW based on the excess capacity.
The SFRB, established by the BPW, assists in considering all requests for additional flows or service. The SFRB's five members include one representative each from the BPW, planning board, board of health, board of selectmen, and finance and advisory committee.
As a next step, in follow-up to the public hearing, Mr. LaPiana sent a letter to the SFRB informing its members that the BPW is considering the policy change and requesting that the SFRB consider developing processes to make additional flow allocations.
Business community pros and cons
That will be no easy task. While some downtown business owners argue that a change in sewer flow allotments would offer more development possibilities, others already hooked up view it as an unfair encroachment on a limited system by property owners who did not pay initial betterment fees.
In an interview with The Times last month, Benjamin Hall Jr., whose family owns several vacant Vineyard Haven properties, said that Tisbury's restrictions on additional sewer flow allotments hampered their leasing possibilities. For example, Mr. Hall said he was unable to work out an arrangement with a restaurateur who expressed an interest in running a family-style eatery in the former Bowl and Board property because it would have required additional sewer flow.
Would the BPW's proposed change offer that kind of flexibility and open up economic development in Vineyard Haven?
"I can't answer that question, because in reality, the sewer flow review board is now going to have to develop the criteria for allocating whatever flow we issue to them," Mr. LaPiana said. "They're just beginning to look at that, so I'm sure they will have many meetings, trying to allocate a very minimal amount of flow that we have available."
Airing the issues
Notice about the BPW public hearing went out with wastewater bills and was advertised in local papers, Mr. LaPiana said. Attendees included Tisbury selectmen Jeff Kristal and Tristan Israel, and representatives from Tisbury Waterways, the planning board, and board of health.
As a longstanding member of the Vineyard Haven business community, Peter Cronig, who owns Cronig's Real Estate on Main Street, served on the town's first wastewater planning committee. At the hearing he recalled that in order to appease opposition to a town sewer system from some community members, the town built a smaller version with a limited capacity to handle only a certain number of downtown properties, so that it would be "growth-neutral."
According to Tisbury town reports, voters agreed to split the cost of the sewer system 50/50 between the town and users. The state approved $6.4 million of zero-interest State Revolving Fund financing in October 2000.
Property owners that wanted to hook up to the system utilized Title 5 flows in applications to the SFRB, which used those to assign sewage flow rates. Sewer betterment fees were assessed to Vineyard Haven businesses in November 2008.
Mr. Cronig questioned the fairness of taking excess gallons originally assigned to a property owner who paid betterment fees on them and assigning them to another property owner who had not.
In a follow-up call after the public hearing with planning board chairman Tony Peak, he agreed Mr. Cronig's argument had merit. For example, he asked, what would happen if a property that used only 75 percent of its assigned flow had its excess capacity assigned to another, and then the owner realizes he needs it later when he decides to expand his business or add employee apartments.
Tisbury selectman Jeff Kristal came up with a compromise for that issue at the hearing. Perhaps the town could act as a broker, he suggested, by charging a fee to pair up a property owner with excess sewer flow with one who wants more, and let them work out an equitable arrangement.
As a business person himself, who owns the Crocker House Inn in Vineyard Haven, Mr. Kristal spoke in favor of changing the restriction on additional flow to allow commercial property owners some flexibility. He said it would also provide Tisbury with another avenue to encourage investment in town through improvements in downtown properties.
Real estate business owner John Best provided perspective as a member of the town's original wastewater planning committee at the hearing. He also currently serves as an at-large representative on a new wastewater planning committee recently appointed by the Tisbury selectmen. The new committee is charged with looking at solutions for reducing nitrogen levels in the Lagoon and Lake Tashmoo, which may involve putting sewer systems in those areas.
"The major concern many people expressed during the wastewater management planning process the last time around was that they did not want the sewer to cause runaway growth in the town," Mr. Best recalled.
"My contention is if the rush to pick up additional capacity is going to force us to expand the system, the property owners that are the cause of it should pick up the cost of the expansion," he added. "The growth issue is a much more critical issue in a small community. It's a question of how do you pay for it, and who does? Improving the infrastructure is a windfall for some property owners unless they're paying the tab."
A matter of excess
What additional flow requests will all come down to, however, is the availability of excess capacity at the treatment plant, Mr. LaPiana told The Times. And that's where it gets tricky.
The state requires that once a wastewater treatment plant reaches 80 percent of its capacity, a municipality has to start planning for its expansion. "We're not there," Mr. LaPiana said. "But before we hit that point, I think the nitrogen issue in the ponds will probably be addressed."
Since Tisbury's plant has a capacity of 104,000 gallons per day (gpd), 80 percent of that is about 80,000 gpd. In peak loading time during the summer, the plant handles on average 56,000 gallons per day.
Although the difference between the 80 percent and peak loading figures allows some leeway, Mr. LaPiana said capacity must be reserved for about 20 properties that haven't hooked up yet. "And we know the SSA is coming on board with a request for about 5,000 gallons per day for their boat, so you shake that all down, and we're somewhere between an excess capacity between 5,000 to 10,000 gallons per day," Mr. LaPiana said. "So we're not talking about much."
(See related SSA sidebar.)
Mr. Kristal said the selectmen want to bring all parties interested in wastewater planning together this fall and to put together a plan for the town that incorporates smart growth.