Revamped sewer ordinance going to voters

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Bridgton voters will decide in November whether to enact major upgrades to the town’s 1995 Sewage Ordinance designed to free up capacity for new downtown business development and pave the way for state and federal funding for a five-mile expansion to the line.

Selectmen, on Tuesday, gave their stamp of approval to amendment language drawn up by the town’s engineers for the sewer system, Woodard & Curran, in consultation with the Wastewater Committee and the town’s lawyer. A public hearing has been set for Tuesday, Oct. 13, at 6 p.m., in the downstairs meeting room of the Bridgton Municipal Complex.

The long-awaited amendments include a whole new section on management of the system, which currently serves around 55 users, and a new term, that of “Grandfathered Allocation Holder.”

It is that latter term, which identifies users who reserved a sewer allocation after September 2010 but currently aren’t using all of it, that has become a point of controversy in town. In June, a citizen’s petition sought, but failed, to lodge a pre-emptive strike against the amendments because of concerns that grandfathered allocation holders were being unfairly treated.

The amended ordinance does away with the allocation system for future use after Sept. 1, 2015, in favor of a system of sewer assessments, fees and service charges based on actual metered use. In addition, a “readiness-to-serve” fee would be charged to those persons along the sewer line who are currently using a private septic system. If their system ever failed, those persons would be required to hook up to the system.

Grandfathered allocation holders who are holding their excess allocations in reserve, in anticipation that they may someday expand their business or change the use of their property to require more sewer capacity, would be invited to sell their excess capacity back to the town. If they don’t, they would be charged an “equivalent use,” based on their current sewer use. Any reserved allocation not exercised by the grandfathered allocation holder by June 30, 2021, would expire, and the town would refund the holder for any amount paid for the unused reserved allocation.

The complexity of the amendments for the average layman was a concern for Selectman Greg Watkins, who wondered what steps the town was taking to educate residents before the vote. Chairman Bernie King said the new language has been in the works for a long time, and has been discussed at length at public Wastewater Committee meetings and op-ed columns and stories in The Bridgton News.

“I don’t know what more we can do,” said King.

Watkins asked if there was still time to include a straw poll question on the Nov. 3 ballot asking voters if they would support pursuing an expansion to the sewer system, which currently serves the immediate downtown. Town Manager Bob Peabody said the deadline for approving warrant items was Sept. 13.

The Wastewater Committee has created a brochure explaining the growth limits of the current sewer system and promoting the benefits of an expanded system. The committee envisions a system that would serve not just Main Street but the entire downtown residential area. A map shows the system extending down Portland Road to Sandy Creek, turning right up to South High Street and back to Main Hill. Cost estimates of up to $20 million have been made, but committee members say around half that amount could be covered by state and federal infrastructure funding.

In offering an overview of the amendments, Peabody said a “much more sophisticated rate structure” has been created for assessing sewer charges, one that takes into account such things as capital improvements and vacant buildings.

“This allows us to charge to people who are connected to the sewer, but their buildings are vacant,” Peabody said. The “equivalent user” system that has been set up, based on engineering studies and actual demand on the system, gives the town “a much more accurate representation” of the actual amount of sewer use, he said.

“In essence, we have strangled ourselves unnecessarily” under the outdated ordinance, he said, in large part by allowing users to buy excess allocation in anticipation of future use. “If you don’t use it by 2021, it goes away — but we give you your money back,” Peabody said.

Another improvement is the inclusion of references to specific state laws governing subsurface waste disposal, he said. “It cleans up a lot of language” and provides detailed measures for dealing with “issues that have arisen in the past,” he added.

Public Works Director Jim Kidder, who is also the town’s Wastewater Superintendent, assured Watkins that the document reflects the intentions of the Wastewater Committee, on which he also serves.

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