Our View: New Sewer Deadline

by The Cape Cod Chronicle

Sewering is complicated. Not just from an organizational standpoint on the municipal end of things, but for those residents that are required to abandon their septic systems and tie into the town system. It’s a big ask, both financially and in terms of the time and legwork it takes to hire surveyors, engineers and contractors to plan and carry out a connection.

Officials in Orleans have come to understand this firsthand. It’s been a year since the 302 property owners in the downtown sewer area were first notified by mail of their need to connect, and the thought was that 12 months would be ample time for them to plan and make their sewer connections. But with just 20 percent of those customers having completed their connections as of the end of February, it’s become evident that more time is needed to bring property owners into compliance.

After briefly moving ahead with a deferral process to give property owners the option of extending the connection deadline six months to September, the board of health last week voted instead to move the entire deadline for all customers out one year to March 16, 2025. The reasons were many. The demand for engineers and contractors to perform the connections vastly outweighs the availability of those services locally. Health Agent Alex Fitch last week said in some cases, engineers are booking jobs out as far as six months. For others, paying for their connection is an issue.

Understanding all of this, town officials are doing their best to be flexible and accommodating to property owners. An article that passed at the special town meeting in October affords the health department the authority to institute a fine of $250 for every day a property owner is not hooked up to sewer beyond the connection deadline, and up until last week, they could have started collecting those fines as soon as March 17. But the goal is not to penalize and fine people. The goal is to get everyone to comply and connect. By delaying the deadline, the town is also delaying the potential for revenue for the sake of helping people connect.

Beyond pushing out the deadline, the town is also in the process of hiring someone to help assist property owners with navigating through the connection process.

The rollout for the first phase of sewer connections has not been smooth, but the town deserves credit for its ability and willingness to make adjustments as needed. With that, property owners will have had two years to plan and make their connections, and there’s a reasonable expectation that those remaining property owners will meet the new deadline. If financing is an issue, services such as the county’s Aquifund, which provides low- and no-interest loans to help residents with the cost of making their connections, are available to those who might need assistance. The county is currently in the process of applying for $13 million from the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust to continue to fund the program, which has paid out $62.4 million to almost 5,000 customers over the past 18 years.

One major gap is the lack of financial assistance available to commercial properties; they were excluded from the legislation authorizing the Aquifund program. The town and our legislators should either look into amending the program to allow owners of commercial land to tap into the financing or develop a new program to lessen the burden on businesses.

The ball is now squarely in property owners’ court to comply with their order to connect. The town is making efforts in good faith to bring residents onto the sewer, a move that stands to have enormous environmental benefits not just for Orleans, but for the whole region.