Downtown Sewer Construction is Just One Vote Away

By: Ed Maroney

Although they argued opposite sides of the sewer construction question, selectmen Mark Mathison, left, and Alan McClennen shared a smile as they cast their ballots at Town Meeting Monday night. ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS If voters approve at the ballot box Oct. 24, bidding for and construction of the central section of a downtown sewer collection system can begin within a few months.

On Oct. 16, by a vote of 413 to 120 that comfortably exceeded the necessary two-thirds majority, town meeting approved spending $3.68 million to install a sewer system with connections to property lines under Main Street between the Cape Cod Rail Trail at Old Colony Way down to Route 28 and Academy Place. Voters will be asked to approve a debt exclusion for the project next Tuesday, when the polls will be open at the senior center from noon to 8 p.m.

The state Department of Transportation has agreed to hold off on its intersection improvement project in the same location if borrowing for the sewer project is approved next Tuesday. If instead the road project goes first, DOT's five-year moratorium on digging up its improved roadways could delay town sewering well into the next decade.

That would result “in millions of dollars in increased costs as well as repeated periods of demolition and reconstruction work in the very heart of our town center,” Selectman Alan McClennen argued in supporting the sewer project Monday night. He said installation of a gravity sewer in this section of downtown would not preclude the use of other technologies elsewhere.

Selectman Mark Mathison was his board's sole vote against the article (Selectman David Currier, who owns two businesses in the area, does not vote on this matter to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest). Noting his record of support for wastewater projects, Mathison said too many questions must be answered before construction begins. He said the town has not officially designated a discharge site for treated wastewater, and noted that bonding for design of the full system, including a treatment plant, can't go forward until a site is selected. “I have concerns about putting pipes in the ground when you can't design the rest of the system,” he said.

Mathison questioned going forward at a time when the financial model detailing who will pay for the system has not been completed. That theme was echoed by Peter O'Meara, the only member of the finance committee to vote against the article.

“The elementary question of who's going to pay and how much cannot be answered,” he said, “and when answers are forthcoming, they're confusing and contradictory. The financial model lacks clarity and credibility.”

Speaking for the finance committee's majority, Suzanne Moore looked back at previous projects, such as the town water system and the new police station, whose costs increased as action was delayed. She diagnosed the condition as “threshold paralysis,” adding that “it's an expensive disease.”

Three other wastewater-related articles – authorizing the selectmen to negotiate a long-term lease with the state to use the Exit 12 cloverleaf as a discharge site for treated wastewater, adding $94,000 to funds supporting the Lonnie's Pond nitrogen-removal-by-aquaculture project, and spending $75,000 for an independent peer review of the 25 percent wastewater system design prepared by AECOM – all passed on voice votes, the last two after some debate. The downtown sewer vote was taken by written ballot.

Town meeting was unanimous in backing $600,000 for HVAC work at the elementary school. The measure is up for a debt exclusion vote on next Tuesday's special election ballot.

All articles on the warrant were approved, including $150,000 in Community Preservation funds for work on the historic Meetinghouse and $40,000 for beach rescue equipment. The stabilization fund for motor vehicles and equipment was topped off to the tune of $260,000.

As expected, Article 1 was the most contentious of the evening. Calling himself “a fiscal conservative and a conservationist,” Doug Fromm said Orleans “began addressing water concerns 42 years ago and sewering 35 years ago. It's time to put aside divisive discourse, to put an end to those who will say there are too many unanswered questions only to have them question the answers and conjure up more questions to delay progress.”

Ed Daly, who like Fromm has served on the town's water quality advisory panel, said he was “in favor of sewering downtown but not in favor of rushing to install a gravity sewer system that's the most expensive form of sewering in the United States. Gravity sewers are fine for downtown Manhattan, but not for small towns like Orleans.” He said less expensive technology is being used across the country.

“Putting those pipes in the ground limits our options,” said Vicki Reis. She said she's “given up trying to figure out why some town officials unnecessarily spend tax dollars for big pipes instead of innovative technologies that are accepted by the EPA and used on the Cape.”

Noting concerns that the innovative alternatives to sewering have yet to be approved by regulators as part of the town's wastewater plan, Fran McClennen said, “The issue is about saving money by installing flexible pipes in the downtown area to accommodate whatever plans are made in the future,” including a potential increase in sewering.

“We've been analyzing this for five years,” said Sid Snow. “Now we have an opportunity to put a shovel in the ground. The more we wait, the more money every option will cost us. This is not a pipe to nowhere.”