Wastewater limits dampen housing options in Oak Bluffs

As the town looks to build density, a major hurdle lurks beneath the surface.

According to wastewater officials, the current Oak Bluffs treatment plant is almost at capacity. — Stacey Rupolo

In Oak Bluffs, wastewater issues are bubbling to the surface, even as town officials grapple with zoning bylaws that are stifling the creation of workforce housing in downtown Oak Bluffs: in particular, restrictions on the number of “top of the shop” apartments that can be added by the owners of two major buildings on Circuit Avenue who are undertaking major renovation projects.

In recent weeks, the owners of the Phillips Hardware building, which is slated for a major expansion, and the owners of the the Lampost, which will undergo renovations, have embarked on the regulatory process before the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. In each case, the proposed outcome includes more apartments.

But as town officials and affordable housing advocates look to “build density where density exists,” wastewater will loom large, and tying into the town sewer system will not be an option without expanding the capacity of the current treatment plant.

The good news for the owners is that sewering does not appear to be another regulatory river to cross. Phillips Hardware was approved for 12 bedrooms by the Oak Bluffs wastewater commission. Lampost co-owner Adam Cummings said he does not anticipate wastewater issues, since he is shuttering the nightclub and lounge, with a combined capacity of 425 people, which in his view should more than compensate for the 24 proposed bedrooms.

However, new projects may expect to run into limited capacity. The current plant is about at its limit, wastewater officials said.

“I want people to know what we’re looking at,” wastewater commissioner and chairman of the selectmen Gail Barmakian said. “People are talking about developing various [housing] projects, but without [wastewater plant] expansion, there’s not going to be a lot of projects built.”

“We have optimized plant capacity,” Hans von Steiger, retired engineer and chairman of the Oak Bluffs water commission, told The Times. “We’ve put in new control systems, and we’ve tweaked it, but that’s as much as we can get out of it. The operator is extremely well trained. The engineer is one of the finest I’ve worked with. It’s as good as any plant in the United States. But you can just beat a horse so much. We have a smidgen left, but in August we’re at capacity, with hardly any wiggle room.”

Mr. von Steiger said the 12-bedroom sewering capacity approved by the wastewater commission for the Phillips Hardware expansion was “just under the wire.”
Wastewater facilities manager Jim Monteith said that the plant is not technically at capacity at present, but it is when allocating for customers who have paid for betterments — access to town sewer — but have not yet converted from septic tanks.

Mr. von Steiger said he is not optimistic that plant capacity will be increased any time soon.

“You have a group of people that want a new town hall, a group that would love to see a new police station, and there’s a group of people that would love to see a new grammar school,” he said. “I don’t see them voting to spend $15 million on sewering at town meeting.”

Ms. Barmakian said the town needs a comprehensive waste-management plan (CWMP) that projects wastewater needs 20 years into the future. “And that’s tied into the health of the ponds, which is declining rapidly,” she said. Nitrogen loading from wastewater leaching from septic tanks and cesspools is the main culprit in the ill health of Lagoon Pond, Farm Pond, and Sengekontacket Pond, according to studies. Title 5 septic system regulations were originally passed in Massachusetts in 1995 and last updated in 2014. However, Title 5 septic systems remove bacteria but do not remove nitrogen.

“The good news is we have the effluent capacity, so we’re golden with that,” Ms. Barmakian said. Effluent is the water discharged after wastewater has been treated at the wastewater plant. The effluent beds currently in use are underneath Ocean Park. There are new beds, adjacent to the wastewater treatment plant on Pennsylvania Avenue, which will be used when expansion warrants it.

Capacity compromised

Mr. Monteith said the Oak Bluffs treatment plant has a capacity of

320,000 gallons per day. But the town forfeits roughly 20 percent of capacity to regional concerns — about 15 percent is consumed by the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, and 5 percent is used by the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and the YMCA.

The average house produces between 60,000 and 65,000 gallons of wastewater each year, or about 170 gallons per day. Currently, according to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission website, wastewater from about 1,800 properties is treated in one of the Island’s five wastewater treatment plants (Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, Martha’s Vineyard Airport, and Wampanoag Tribal Housing), while over 14,000 Vineyard properties (more than 90 percent) treat wastewater on site — in cesspools, in older septic systems, or in newer Title 5 septic systems.

The next steps in expanding Oak Bluffs wastewater capacity are the creation of a CWMP and a plant optimization design, which will cost $350,000 and $400,000 respectively. Ms. Barmakian said both items will go before the town capital program committee and then be put on the town meeting warrant for a vote in April 2017.

Although Oak Bluffs loses 20 percent capacity off the top for regional entities, thus far there have been no discussions with other towns about helping to pay for the studies, Ms. Barmakian said.

“There’s no question that Oak Bluffs supports a lot of regional organizations,” town administrator Robert Whritenour said. “It would certainly help if they paid their fair share.”

Town sewer expansion is a hot topic on the Cape and Islands. Last week at town meeting, Nantucket voters overwhelmingly approved an $80 million extension of the municipal sewer system to more than 800 properties.

This Monday, Orleans voters approved a $3.2 million wastewater article to fund a downtown sewer plan and to investigate innovative treatment methods, such as aquaculture.