HARWICH — The town has begun what will be a series of informational sessions between now and the spring town meeting to educate residents about changes being made to the comprehensive wastewater management plan.
There is the potential for major changes to the plan. Gov. Charlie Baker signed special legislation for the DHY Clean Waters Partnership, allowing Dennis, Harwich and Yarmouth to work together and possibly enter into a tri-town agreement to operate a regional wastewater treatment plant in Dennis.
Such an agreement would require adjustments to the eight-phase comprehensive plan Harwich developed, approved, and has begun implementing. Selectman Larry Ballantine said last Thursday that should the town agree to move forward with the DHY Partnership, it will require changes in the phasing of the comprehensive plan and adjustments in funding the wastewater initiative.
Ballantine said the benefits to Harwich of the DHY partnership legislation are obvious with one regional plant saving all three towns money.
Should that direction be pursued, a shift in the comprehensive plan would require a major alteration in phase three, pushing back work in a section of East Harwich and focusing on conveyance, collection and the construction of the regional treatment plant.
Harwich’s share of the cost of the regional treatment plant is estimated to be 15 percent, based on wastewater flow. The plant ultimately would be designed to treat 6.5 million gallons per day, and Harwich’s flow is estimated at 980,000 gallons per day. The plant would be built in segments. Harwich’s contribution to the construction is estimated at $15 million. A Harwich-only plant proposed in the plan to be located at the town landfill would cost $60 million, included in phase four of the approved plan.
In the DHY partnership each community remains in control of its collection system, which is estimated to be 75 percent of the cost of wastewater programs.
Under the DHY partnership, the town’s comprehensive wastewater treatment plan over the next 30 years would be $293 million versus $315 million for Harwich to go it alone, based on 2022 estimates. David Young, vice president of CDM Smith, Inc., the town’s engineering firm, said there will be an annual $1 million savings to Harwich through the DHY partnership.
Among the early issues to be worked out if the town moves forward with the DHY plan is conveyance of wastewater to the Dennis plant. One scenario is a system along Route 28 in West Harwich connected to a joint pumping station within Dennis and then up to the treatment plant that will be located along the Dennis/Harwich town line, near the former Dennis landfill.
Young said there have been meetings with Massachusetts Transportation officials and the town has been assured Route 28 reconstruction projects can be coordinated so the towns only have to fund placing the piping in the ground and MassDOT will cover the cost of roadway reconstruction.
But there were questions raised about that route. Noreen Donahue, a capital outlay committee member, questioned why the town does not go up Depot Road to Great Western Road to the treatment plant. She said that route would take the stress off the town over coordination with a MassDOT project. Young said that a third alternative, providing conveyance to Lothrop Avenue to Great Western Road and onto the treatment plant, is being studied.
Resident Sharon Pfleger, who has served on the town’s wastewater committee, said since Harwich would provide such a small amount of wastewater, the town should consider allowing Dennis to build the plant and Harwich to buy per gallon treatment as it will be doing with the Chatham treatment plant.
Young said it is a good question but wondered if Dennis and Yarmouth would charge Harwich the same rate. He also said Harwich would lose its voice on the regional board.
Both Donahue and Pfleger raised concerns about costs and impacts on the tax rate. They questioned whether taxpayers would be able to afford the costs associated with the project, especially if the DHY treatment plant funding is added to an earlier phase of the town plan.
“My first reaction is this is way too much,” Donahue said. “The DHY work is moving costs forward, and we can’t afford that. The greater costs don’t make sense to me.”
“It sounds like a good idea, but we have to look at when all that money hits the tax rate,” Pfleger added.
“How much can the town handle without going bankrupt?” asked resident Gary Conroy. “What’s it do to other infrastructure projects in the town?”
Town Administrator Christopher Clark said while $15 million is moved up, the $60 million to construct a town treatment plant is eliminated. He also pointed out the major projects facing the town have been completed and debt on those projects is diminishing each year.
Noting the $2 to $4 billion price tag estimated for cleaning up pollution in coastal waters on the Cape, Conroy recommended town officials reach out to legislators for assistance. He suggested an exemption be sought from the prevailing wage law to assist in reducing costs.
Clark said the benefits of the DHY partnership is in getting zero to 2 percent state loans, and he added the town’s AAA bond rating will help reduce costs. He also said the state law providing additional taxes on short-term rentals will be dedicated to funding wastewater projects.
Ballantine said it wouldn’t hurt to ask for the prevailing wage exemption.
Water commissioner Allin Thompson reminded the small group present that watershed clean-up has been mandated through a Conservation Law Foundation lawsuit.
There will be more education sessions as the town moves forward, Ballantine said. It was pointed out that selectmen in the three towns will be asked to endorse the DHY plan late next month or in January, and each community will be asked to vote on it in the spring town meeting.
If approved, the agreement would be signed by July 2020 and Harwich would have to send the project change in its comprehensive plan to the state for approval. The regional commission governing the partnership would also be appointed in June or July. With the formation of the commission the partnership would be able to access $1 million in the state Environmental Bond Bill this fall for the regional project.