Tisbury will require denitrifying septic systems

The new regulations, with some exceptions, will apply to property owners in the Lagoon Pond and Tashmoo watersheds.

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The Tisbury board of health unanimously approved their nitrogen regulations for the Lagoon Pond and Lake Tashmoo watersheds, requiring property owners to install enhanced denitrification systems. Lake Tashmoo, shown here. — Nelson Sigelman

The Tisbury board of health Tuesday unanimously approved new nitrogen regulations for the Lagoon Pond and Lake Tashmoo watersheds, effective immediately, pending approval by town counsel. The regulations will require property owners in the two watersheds to install advanced septic systems to reduce nitrogen if their project pulls any of four specific triggers.

Based on industry-expert estimates, the systems cost as much as $22,000 to install, and up to $2,000 annually to maintain.

In an email to fellow board members Malcolm Boyd and chairman Jeffrey Pratt dated Sunday, Oct. 16, board of health member Michael Loberg, who has spearheaded the regulations, suggested the board act on four motions. On Tuesday he wasted little time and asked the board to act on the four motions as a whole.

“I think that the regulations should be endorsed and put into place,” Mr. Loberg said on Tuesday. “With that said, though, we had eight hours of hearings; people expressed concerns. I think we ought to collect more data.”

The board of health has rejected calls to bring the regulations to town meeting, citing its inherent authority and asserting that nitrogen pollution is a public health threat and that the board is required by law to address it. Mr. Pratt recommended that the board present the regulations to the board of selectmen as a way to build consensus among Tisbury voters so they would know that the board of health was “doing the right thing.” However, the selectmen have no authority to change the regulations.

With respect to town meeting, Mr. Pratt said, “There is no mechanism for us to bring an up or down vote on a ballot. How can you have a ballot saying, ‘I’m going to vote to make that guy pay, but I don’t have to pay?’”

After confusion over the specifics of the regulations among board members, Mr. Boyd seconded the motion, and the board voted unanimously in approval.

The first motion directs health agent Maura Valley to develop and present a nitrogen testing plan for existing Tisbury monitoring wells. The second motion establishes monitoring sites at the shores of Lake Tashmoo and Lagoon Pond “for the purpose of measuring groundwater nitrogen.” The third motion approves the regulations as presented at their last meeting on Oct. 18. The fourth motion directs the board to seek to grant funding that would allow the town to test for new technology, providing Tisbury with 10 enhanced denitrification systems. They also discussed a grant that would help pay for water testing.

The regulations

Advanced septic systems, or enhanced denitrification systems, are intended to remove a larger amount of nitrogen than a standard Title V septic system. The new regulations require “on-site denitrification wastewater disposal technology that is intended to meet a nitrogen groundwater discharge standard of not more than 19 milligrams per liter.”

A property owner pulling one of three triggers — new construction, additional development, or a property transfer to new ownership — would have to install an enhanced system. Another trigger is a failed septic system, but a property owner would only be subject to the regulations after a subsidy program is in place.

There are several additions to the regulations: town-supported subsidies for failed Title V septic systems; a sewer district proposal that postpones the effective date for those who fell within it; and an exemption for homeowners in an approved sewer district.

The Tisbury board of selectmen will have to make a decision about the subsidy program, and it may need to be approved at town meeting. If passed, it would be for “eligible property owners” with failed systems and would cover “some portion” of the cost of an enhanced system.

For property owners within a proposed sewer district, the date after which an enhanced denitrification system must be installed will be postponed until the boundaries of the district are proposed by the Tisbury wastewater planning committee or the Tisbury sewer advisory board.

If the town approves the district, those within it would be exempt from the regulation entirely. If the town does not approve the district, then homeowners would be required to install an enhanced system.

According to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission database, there are 808 septic systems in the Lagoon Pond watershed, and 1,058 in the Lake Tashmoo watersheds.

A strategic plan?

The regulations were enacted without groundwater testing in the watersheds, and despite specific calls from Islanders to do so. Mr. Pratt read a letter to the board of health on Tuesday from Kent Healy, a well-respected civil engineer from West Tisbury, who has been a major critic of the board of health regulations.

“I urge the board to collect some physical evidence to substantiate the [Massachusetts Estuaries Project] models before requiring the expenditure by Tisbury citizens of hundreds of thousands of dollars for denitrifying septic systems,” Mr. Healy said.

The board of health discussed the testing plan on Tuesday prior to the vote to approve the regulations.

“The real issue is, once the lab is set up, our ability to answer significant questions is greatly increased,” Mr. Loberg said.

“That would be part of our strategic plan regardless?” Mr. Pratt asked.

“It says these are our principles, these are our priorities, these are the things we’re going to do,” Mr. Loberg said.

Mr. Pratt asked how long until water testing could begin.

“A couple of weeks?” Mr. Boyd asked.

“We have no money,” Ms. Valley said. “Which means we need to put a warrant article on town meeting, which means we won’t have money to do anything until July 1.”

Mr. Loberg said that if they receive the grant, they could begin testing as early as April.

“That clears up an awful lot,” Mr. Pratt said.

Tisbury selectmen comment

Tisbury selectmen chairman Melinda Loberg, who is also also a Tisbury wastewater commissioner and the wife of Michael Loberg, told The Times on Wednesday that she believed that the new regulations would benefit the Island.

“I think [the board of health] really modified a lot of their approach based on the feedback,” Ms. Loberg said. “I think it’s a modest first step toward what challenges us.”

When asked about the lack of data and the high cost that will face property owners in the watershed, Ms. Loberg equivocated. She spoke about potential grants, and said that property owners shouldn’t have to bear the cost of testing and maintaining their enhanced systems, although they would have to bear the cost of installation.

Ms. Loberg said that property owners would also be eligible for one of the 10 systems that Tisbury would receive if the town receives grants.

“We’re working hard. There’s a lot of people thinking of this, and it’s all a step in the right direction,” Ms. Loberg said. “We have a lot more work to do.”

Selectman Larry Gomez had not yet read the final draft of regulations, and said he was unable to comment.

Selectman Tristan Israel could not be reached for comment.