Town Meeting Supports Water Quality, Land Acquisition Initiatives

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Town Meeting

Filling the field: the approximately 400 socially-distanced voters who attended Saturday’s annual town meeting nearly filled the soccer field behind Nauset Middle School. TREVOR COLLINS PHOTO

ORLEANS — If democracy dies in darkness, as The Washington Post’s slogan declares, it appears to thrive in sunlight, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Saturday morning’s outdoor annual town meeting at the Nauset Regional Middle School track drew 439 voters, more than double the number required for a quorum. Many sat in socially-distanced pairs, with some sporting colorful umbrellas. Most wore masks.

An operating budget for almost $40 million was approved for fiscal 2021, which begins July 1. The sum of $12,218,000 was added to the funds available to build the downtown sewer collection system, the treatment plant, and the disposal area, pending approval of a debt exclusion vote for the borrowing June 23. Town meeting approved two other projects that will also appear on the ballot: $1,700,500 for preliminary design work on a sewer collection system for Meetinghouse Pond and further investigation of permeable reactive barriers to alter nitrogen in groundwater, and $400,000 for interim air quality improvements at the fire station.

(See page 7 for election results).

By well more than the required two-thirds majority, town meeting agreed to spend $775,000 in Community Preservation funds to purchase 2.5 acres along the Namequoit River leading into Arey’s Pond for conservation and recreation. That article brought forward the most speakers, pro and con.

The finance committee’s Bob Renn spoke for the four members who voted for the purchase (five were opposed). He noted that the funding would come from the annual 3 percent Community Preservation surtax, not the property tax, and would be paid over 30 years. The town’s purchase, Renn said, would qualify it to apply for a $400,000 state grant (like the one received years ago to pay for abutting conservation land) and prevent development of an environmentally sensitive lot.

Speaking for the nays, fincom chairman Lynn Bruneau said the town’s financial pressures required a closer look at such acquisitions. “There is already a conservation restriction on this property,” she said. “The current assessed value is $230,000.” The property, Bruneau said, “is already open for public recreation with some restrictions.” Community Preservation committee member Bob Wilkinson said that the conservation restriction that exists on the land “allows for a substantial home to be built (there).”

“Many voters think our Community Preservation spending is heavily skewed toward open space and that interest in recreation is limited,” Rick Francolini said. “We could use a better balance, but we do not have to choose between open space and recreation. The budget is significant enough to let us invest in each. I hope that next year there will be big recreation proposals” for CPC funds.

“When I moved here, I thought I lived in the country,” said a woman who said she lives on Arey’s Lane. “I’ve been totally shocked by many bigger houses and how they’re cutting down trees.” CPC chair Julia Enroth said the purchase would more than double the number of walking trails in the area, and that it would “enhance an active wildlife corridor.”

Later in the debate, Josh Stewart said that “to spend three quarters of a million dollars to add 2½ acres to the existing 7.7 (of open space) in a remote neighborhood that rarely gets tourists visiting seems like the ultimate luxury.” In reference to students’ familiar route, he said, “The biggest wildlife corridor I know is from the middle school to the Chocolate Sparrow. They are the wildlife we need to be protecting.”

The article appeared to pass on a voice vote, but Moderator David Lyttle called for the counters to take a standing vote. “It’s too close for me to tell this far away,” he said. The second vote was in the affirmative, but problems with the count required a third go recorded as 297 for and 96 against.

Town meeting also approved 17 other CPC appropriations totaling $1,565,032 for housing, historical preservation, open space, and recreation initiatives.

The $12 million water quality article drew fewer speakers than the Peck’s debate, even after Selectman Kevin Galligan reported that Orleans was not likely to qualify for principal forgiveness from the State Revolving Loan Fund, or about 10 percent of the total project cost of nearly $60 million, as had been assumed in presentations of sources of funds. Despite that news, and the unexpectedly higher bids for the project, he said the project remained essential for the health of the town’s waters and to stimulate construction of affordable housing in the downtown area. Galligan noted that related water quality and water service projects on the warrant would be less expensive by being combined with road openings for the sewer work.

The $60 million sewer project would be paid for over 30 years with funds from the Cape and Islands Clean Water Trust, betterment charges to properties connecting to the system, proceeds from the hotel/motel and short-term rental tax, and the local property tax.

After water and sewer board chairman Dick Hartmann reviewed the decades-long history of wastewater efforts in Orleans and the reasons for the higher-than-expected bids, the finance committee’s Bruneau reminded voters that the $47 million they had approved for the work a year ago was based on a design that was only 30 percent complete, which she suggested was akin to using a soap box derby car as a mock-up for a full-size Ford. But the town had been required to take action then, and must do so now, to keep pace with the state’s funding deadlines. “The state is driving the bus,” she said, “and it’s their bus schedule.”

The only voter to speak in opposition was Larry Diaz, who said that he “was the one who discovered the $5.9 million (loan forgiveness) subsidy is not coming to us. That information is at least a year old. I confirmed it with the deputy director (of the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust).” He was critical of the town’s consultants and suggested that “it’s appropriate to stop the process and take stock. There’s little downside. State funding is here for the long-term. The project of cleaning up the Cape is a multi-decade project.”

“I’ve heard both sides of this issue for 20 years,” the next speaker said. “I’d like to move the question.” Town meeting agreed, and by voice vote approved the additional $12 million. The related water quality and water system upgrades passed unanimously.

Voters approved a $39,346,194 operating budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 after hearing a sobering report from the finance committee presented by Bruneau. Although local receipts “are looking more promising,” she said, the town will need to plan over the summer for possible reductions to the FY21 budget at the fall special town meeting. That effort, and a longer-term look at the mismatched trends of expenditures and revenues that could result in a general override vote to help fund the FY22 budget, will be advanced in fortnightly work sessions of the board of selectmen this summer.

Before the vote, Lara Slifka expressed her hope that town officials “will do a very thorough job” of evaluating expenses and pending projects this summer. “The police (station) didn’t need to cost way more than the state average,” she said, adding that the new DPW/Natural Resources building should have included cold storage for vehicles or planning for that function. The town should focus on needs, she said, not wants. “Can you afford a new library or fire station?” she asked.

The meeting dispatched 56 annual and special town meeting articles in two-and-one-half hours. “Thank you,” Lyttle said at adjournment. “It was quite an ordeal for all of you in the heat. It just shows that we’re in this together and that when we work together, we can move forward.”