Town Meeting: Another Turning Point For Wastewater Saga

By: Ed Maroney

ORLEANS — The heavy lifting is right up front in the special town meeting warrant to be acted upon Oct. 16 at 6:30 p.m. at the Nauset Middle School gym. Article 1 asks for more than $3.6 million to begin construction of the downtown sewer collection system, Article 3 for a commitment of $94,000 to complete the Lonnie's Pond aquaculture experiment, and Article 4 for $75,000 for an independent review of the 25 percent sewer design by AECOM. Article 5 seeks $600,000 for heating and ventilation work at Orleans Elementary School.

Town officials will speak and answer questions on the articles at an Orleans Citizens Forum event today (Oct. 12) at 3:30 p.m. at the senior center.

Recently, the particulars of Article 1 took an interesting turn. Putting in the central portion of the downtown sewer collection system at the same time the state was tearing up the intersections of Routes 6A and 28 with Main Street was seen as a way to dodge the Department of Transportation's five-year moratorium on digging up completed road projects. That regulation could have delayed the start of sewer construction into the middle of the next decade, and would have required demolishing not only some of the state's work but also some additional improvements to Main Street approved by the voters.

Conversations between consultants and the state led to a proposal to add the sewer work to the state road project as a change order. State counsel ruled last month that such an arrangement was not allowed, setting off a rush of emails among town and state officials and consultants. The upshot was an agreement by the state to hold off on its road project while the town goes forward with the sewer system installation downtown after going out to bid.

Next week, a two-thirds majority of town meeting will be needed to move the project to a vote Oct. 24 to exclude the debt for the sewer work from the tax levy limit.

As the first significant “shovel in the ground” step in creation of a sewer collection system, the project was already controversial. Selectman Mark Mathison voted against recommending a yes vote at town meeting (the board backed the article 3-1, with Selectman David Currier not voting to avoid a potential conflict of interest regarding his downtown businesses). Mathison joined the unanimous vote (4-0) to put the question on the Oct. 24 ballot. The finance committee recommended passage at town meeting, but by a 4-1-2 vote.

“I only voted to put it on the ballot because I thought the people in town should have an opportunity to save money,” Mathison said at his board's Oct. 4 meeting, adding that he did not believe the downtown system's construction should begin until the debate over which system to use is settled. “I know and understand that we need to do wastewater collection downtown so we can have affordable housing for working people,” he said. “We need to be upfront and lay all the costs on the table. When something like this happens, you once again make it easy for people to stand up at town meeting and say, 'You're hiding stuff from us.'”

Mathison objected to the full board not being informed promptly of concerns about piggybacking the sewer work on the state's road project. “If I had known then what I know now,” he said, “I would never have voted to put it on the ballot...I am not voting for one more dime until I have town counsel come in here and tell me we didn't violate ethics laws.”

Last night's (Oct. 11) selectmen's agenda included an appearance by Town Counsel Michael Ford to discuss “possible Open Meeting Law Violation relating to Article 1 of Special Town Meeting” and “MassDOT Procurement Laws relating to Article 1 of Special Town Meeting.” As of press time Oct. 10, acting town administrator Tom Daley said that, to his knowledge, an actual Open Meeting Law violation complaint had not been filed with the town.

Selectman Alan McClennen said town leaders “actually started raising this (doing the sewer work as part of the state road project) in April. Our contact at DOT said we could do this as an extra work order.” Until Daley heard near the end of last month that there were questions about that route, McClennen said, “everything Orleans was doing was following directions from Mass DOT focused on the extra work order.”

Noting his 40 years in public service and experience bidding projects, McClennen said he was “nervous when Mass DOT said just have a change order. I've been through that before; I know what can happen.” He saw positives in the requirement to bid the project instead. “If the town decides to go forward...we'll end up with bidding by people who want to beat the cost if they want this job. The town of Orleans will be in a much better position.”

Admitting there may have been “hiccups along the way,” McClennen said their cause was the department of transportation. “They led us down a path at their district level that they should have known sooner...We have not lost this project. The voters have the opportunity to go forward or not.”

(In a Sept. 25 letter to Selectmen Chair Jon Fuller, Cape Cod Commission Executive Director Paul Niedzwiecki wrote that “the proposal to install the main spine of a collection system in downtown Orleans is consistent with the 208 Plan Update.” He added that the proposed system “would not preclude the town from choosing among the various collection system technologies available for future use.”)

Discussion of the article to complete the Lonnie's Pond aquaculture project, endorsed unanimously by the selectmen and finance committee, has been less heated. It would add $94,000 to funding for the third year of the experiment using oysters to take up nitrogen in the pond. The goal is to procure data to convince the state department of environmental protection that such systems can be a vital part of the town's overall nitrogen cleanup of its waters, thus avoiding more expensive sewering.

“Trust but verify” might be the byword for spending $75,000 to independently vet consultant AECOM's 25 percent design plan for the sewer collection, treatment, and discharge system. The selectmen voted unanimously to support the article, while the finance committee weighed in at 5-1-1.

There's another water quality question on the warrant (Article 2), a rare one with no dollar amount attached. The selectmen (4-0-0) want consent to negotiate a long-term lease with the state to use the Route 6 cloverleaf at Exit 12 as a potential discharge site for treated wastewater. The search for such sites is ongoing; just last week, the board voted unanimously to spend $298,300 to further study town water tower property on Lots Hollow Road as an alternative discharge site.

Both boards are unanimous in support of spending $600,000 to replace the Orleans Elementary School system's 1956 heating and ventilation system and the kindergarten through grade 2 wing's boiler system. Like Article 1, a two-thirds vote will be needed at town meeting as well as subsequent approval for a debt exclusion at the Oct. 24 special election.

The remainder of the warrant includes proposed vehicle and equipment purchases, including a customized inflatable beach rescue boat with trailer and all-terrain vehicle, and an award of community preservation funds to the Orleans Historical Society for restoration of the Meetinghouse, a National Register building. There are also a few “bookkeeping” adjustments to be made, and finally an opportunity to amend the zoning bylaw to include mobile food establishments such as food trucks.