CHATHAM – Voters at Monday's town meeting decided that being good neighbors – and having clean water – was more important than any shortfalls that might be contained in an inter-municipal wastewater treatment agreement with Harwich.
By an overwhelming vote of 220 to 61, voters endorsed the inter-municipal agreement (IMA) that calls for up to 300,000 gallons per day of sewage from East Harwich to be treated at Chatham's wastewater treatment plant off Sam Ryder Road. The 25-year agreement calls for Harwich to pay Chatham $6,765,000 in four payments over seven years as well as covering 25 percent of the plant's operating costs.
“The sanctity of our watershed is the important thing here,” said Chairman of Selectmen Jeffrey Dykens, one of two members of the board who spent months negotiating the agreement with their Harwich counterparts.
Harwich Town Meeting approved funding for the agreement last week, but the appropriation is subject to a debt exclusion vote next Tuesday. Although Chatham selectmen are empowered to approved the IMA on their own, because of the importance of the issue they sought town meeting's endorsement.
Voters concluded the 40-article annual town meeting warrant in under three hours, voting a $30 million operating budget, $8.9 million school budget and $2 million capital budget with no discussion. Likewise, measures to bond $31 million to continue the town's sewer expansion project and $11 million for waterfront infrastructure passed on voice votes with no discussion.
The IMA was in the works for several years; working with Chatham is part of Harwich's state-approved wastewater management plan, and the agreement is consistent with Chatham's wastewater plan, said Director of Natural Resources Robert Duncanson. Treating East Harwich's wastewater at the Chatham plant will benefit the town in several ways, he said. It will reduce nitrogen loading in the Pleasant Bay watershed, which the two communities share, and will remove septic systems from the zone of contributions to many of Chatham's drinking water wells, which stretches into East Harwich.
“It's a good deal for Chatham,” he said. “Both communities get clean water, both communities get Pleasant Bay cleaned up,” he said. Chatham can use the revenue from the deal to pay down debt on the seven-year-old plant, to build a new senior center or for another purpose, he said.
Opposition to the IMA focused not so much on the purpose of the agreement as on the amount Harwich will pay as well as several other details.
“I believe we should have an agreement, but they aren't paying enough for the privilege of owning 25 percent” of the plant, said Elaine Gibbs. The agreement would limit Chatham's future options regarding growth of the plant and the town's wastewater system, she said, and early termination would unfairly penalize Chatham. Neither town can withdraw until year 15, and if Chatham withdraws it would have to reimburse Harwich, she said. The agreement duration is actually 50 years, not 25, she added, because of penalties that would be imposed on Chatham if it is not renewed at the quarter-century mark.
Duncanson said the term of the agreement is 25 years, with an option to renew for another 25.
Gibbs also said the treated effluent should be returned to Harwich so that it doesn't eat into the plant's one million gallon per day discharge limit.
“Being good neighbors is not a one-way street,” she said.
There was also concern that once sewers are installed, growth in East Harwich will accelerate.
“Chatham does not need to subsidize development in East Harwich,” said resident Michael Westgate.
Others were also critical of the IMA, suggesting that officials return to the bargaining table and hammer out an agreement more favorable to Chatham.
Science teacher Barbara Waters, however, reminded voters that Chatham and Harwich not only share the Pleasant Bay watershed but also draw drinking water from the same source. She used a sponge to demonstrate how Chatham is at one end of the aquifer; if Harwich doesn't “do the right thing,” the town's water resources could suffer.
Ronald Bergstrom warned voters that their decision should be based on “facts and not alt facts.” It's easy to throw a lot of numbers around, but the bottom line is that “this isn't that bad a deal for Chatham,” he said.
The town's representatives to the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative, Florence Seldin, said Harwich has other options – such as a regional wastewater treatment plant now under discussion with Dennis and Yarmouth – and rejection of the plan by Chatham could have implications on grants for upcoming wastewater projects.
If Chatham experiences drinking water supply problems – as was nearly the case a few years ago – asking Harwich for help is the only option, said Larry Sampson, chairman of the town's water and sewer advisory committee.
“It's important that we're good neighbors, important that we look forward,” he said.
“I don't like the bad deal we're getting here,” said Carol Blair, summing up comments by several speakers, “but I'm more concerned about the water.” The agreement was approved with the night's only hand count.
With no discussion, voters approved $31 million in borrowing for expansion of sewers along Route 137, including mains Harwich will connect to for the East Harwich sewers. Duncanson said the area had to be sewered to reduce nitrogen loading in Mill Creek and Taylor's Pond watersheds.
The $11,355,000 capital article for waterfront infrastructure will cover a number of projects slated to be spread out over at least five years, Duncanson said. Officials decided to seek all of the funding at once to allow maximum flexibility. While work to upgrade the fish pier was slated for the next few years, the recent break in South Beach may necessitate making improvements to town facilities at Stage Harbor first.
“This gives us the flexibility to do that,” he said. Both the sewer and waterfront bonding articles are subject to approval at Thursday's annual town election.
Voters approved 10 projects to be funded through the Community Preservation Act. They include $100,000 for the town's Affordable Housing Trust Fund; $100,000 for the Cape Cod Village housing project for autistic adults to be built in Orleans; $80,000 to restore the foundation of the Chatham Historical Society's Atwood House, built in 1752; $29,000 to audit and digitally preserve the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center archives; $22,500 to restore the exterior of the Marconi/RCA powerhouse and garage, structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places; $18,000 for a new backstop for the little league field at the community center; $12,500 for improvements to two tees at the town-owned Chatham Seaside Links golf course; $38,000 for improvements and new playground equipment for the South Chatham Playground; $50,000 to fund the design of new bleachers at Veteran's Field; and $75,000 for a pickleball court at Monomoy Regional Middle School.
“This is Chatham's 306th annual town meeting,” quipped Moderator William Litchfield, “and never before has the word pickleball been used. So we've done something historic.”
A new collective bargaining agreement with the Chatham Municipal Employees Association was funded with a $750,000 appropriation, which covers a three-year period from 2015 to 2018. Several water department capital items were approved, including $1.2 million to paint and clean one of the town's two water storage tanks. Voters also approved a $2.9 million water department budget, which will be funded through water revenues and includes money to complete installation of electronic water meters. That will allow the department to collect more accurate data on water use, said Finance Committee member Roz Coleman.
Funding for expansion of Seaside and Union cemeteries was approved at $650,000. Getting a single contractor to do both projects will save the town $50,000 and create a total of 2,000 new cemetery lots along with a 60-unit columbarium for cremation remains.
The budgets and other appropriations approved at the meeting will result in an estimated property tax increase of five cents, from the current $5.03 to $5.08, said Town Manager Jill Goldsmith, a .99 percent increase. The total $48.9 million in approved spending is $741,794 above this year's budget.
Including with the two debt articles – which will not impact the tax rate until a later date – voters approved more than $90 million in spending during the three-hour session.