Health Board: Grinding Halt On Grinder Pump Orders

by Alan Pollock

CHATHAM – At the request of the select board, the board of health Monday voted to temporarily stop ordering homeowners to connect to the sewer if doing so requires installation of a pricy grinder pump.

The moratorium aims to give time for the select board, acting as water and sewer commissioners, to develop a comprehensive policy on the devices, which are currently purchased, installed, connected and maintained at each homeowner’s expense. While most properties can connect to the sewer system without them, grinder pumps are required to connect to low pressure mains, generally for properties or neighborhoods that are at a low elevation.

On Jan. 16, the select board received a recommendation from the water and sewer advisory committee that Chatham follow Orleans’ lead and purchase grinder pumps at a discounted rate and resell them to homeowners at several thousand dollars below retail value. The advisory committee was of split opinion on the matter and made no recommendation on whether the town should subsidize the installation and maintenance of the pumps.

A group of citizens, led by the Lime Hill Homeowners, argued that it’s unfair for some homeowners to pay more to connect to the town sewer simply because their land is at a low elevation.

“We’ve been working on this thing for over a year,” Lime Hill Road resident Bob Byrnes told the health board. Customers who are able to connect to the sewer by gravity can expect to pay around $10,000 to make the connection, but grinder pump users might pay up to $25,000, “so there could be a $15,000 difference,” he said. The neighborhood group began to research how other area towns handle the inequity.

“We visited probably close to 22 towns,” Byrnes said. The model they favor comes from the Upper Cape.

“Falmouth buys the pumps, they pay for them, they cover the maintenance, and they also give the homeowner $1,800 — a one-time payment — to cover the electrical costs,” he said. Falmouth homeowners are still responsible for the installation of the pump and the sewer connection.

A large number of homeowners at the Jan. 16 meeting spoke in favor of Chatham adopting a similar policy, saying that voters initially approved the wastewater plan on the basis that it treated all property owners equally. While some communities pay for their sewer systems using betterment taxes that charge only the homeowners who connect, Chatham is paying for its system through property taxes, on the premise that the entire town benefits from the improved water quality that the sewer brings.

Responding to those public concerns, the select board asked the water and sewer advisory committee to revisit its recommendation.

“While that’s being all worked out,” the select board also asked the health board to press pause on issuing any new grinder pump connection orders, health board Chair Noble Hansen said. Typically, when a sewer line is installed in front of a property, the health board issues an order requiring the owner to connect to the sewer within two years. Those who fail to connect face stiff fines.

“So the select board just requested that we...not enforce this temporarily” for properties needing grinder pumps, Health Agent Judith Giorgio said.

The larger discussion about grinder pumps is a complex one, Hansen said.

“It’s an equity fairness issue. But all we have to do — we’re very focused — is decide if we are going to comply with board’s request that we put a temporary moratorium on grinder pump hookups,” he said.

With little debate, the health board unanimously enacted a temporary moratorium on enforcement of properties needing grinder pumps that are ordered to connect to the sewer system, until the water and sewer commissioners finalize a grinder pump policy. The order allows voluntary connections by any grinder pump users, and does not affect ordinary gravity feed sewer connections.