With dwindling sewage capacity, East Lyme questions potential for growth
East Lyme — With town's sewage capacity nearing its limit, officials are wondering whether they might need to place a moratorium on developments beyond those in the pipeline.
After a recently upheld court ruling, town officials were forced in December to allocate 45 percent of the town's estimated remaining capacity to Landmark Development for a proposed 840-unit housing development set over 236 acres in the town's Oswegatchie Hills — spurring discussions on what recently has become an obvious capacity issue.
With just 161,000 daily gallons now left to allot, and several incoming developments expected to take a majority of that capacity, First Selectman Mark Nickerson briefly mentioned the possibility of a moratorium at a Board of Selectmen meeting earlier this month, stating that he was working with the town's attorney to determine the legality of that.
In an interview last week, Nickerson said he has only discussed the issue briefly with the Water and Sewer Commission, which he chairs, and that, "Maybe that is our next step, but we don't know." He said, if one were put in place, it would be up to the commission to do so.
"I don't know the legality of it, that's my honest answer. I can't speak to it," he said, before stating that the town soon may need to consider possible solutions to find capacity elsewhere — a topic that he also is beginning to discuss with his commission, he said.
"We know that there is a lingering capacity issue and we are still getting down to that discussion. As we move forward, we will be doing that," Nickerson said. "We are planning properly because we know in the soon future, our capacity will be up."
Informally known as the tri-town agreement, East Lyme negotiated its sewage capacity allotment with Waterford and New London nearly 30 years ago, before the town developed into what it is today. As part of that agreement, East Lyme is allowed to send up to 1.5 million gallons to New London's wastewater treatment plant per day, 15 percent of the 10 million gallons the plant can process on a given day.
At a Water & Sewer Commission regular meeting in November, town utility engineer Brad Kargl estimated approximately 262,000 of the town's total 1.5 million daily gallons remained unalloted. Since then, town officials allocated 118,000 gallons, or 45 percent, of that remaining capacity to Landmark Development, leaving just 161,000 unalloted gallons for incoming developments.
Of those developments sitting in the pipeline, the town is estimating to allot to 18,000 gallons to phase II of the Gateway Commons development; 7,700 gallons to the second phase of the incoming Costco project; approximately 20,000 gallons to JAG Capital Drive LLC with its proposed 60-unit affordable-housing development off Route 156; and a potential 86,000 approximate gallons to Pazz Construction LLC with a 575-bedroom housing development on North Bridebrook Road. That project has not yet been brought to the town's zoning department, zoning official Bill Mullholland said, but a request for capacity has been filed.
Assuming that all those projects reach fruition, East Lyme will be left with just over 10,000 daily gallons remaining to allocate.
"There will be very little ability to allocate additional capacity. There will be some, some movement, some room," Kargl said. "But I just see that really running out in a fairly short time and then what do you do? Do you have to hold off on development until we figure this out? There is no real easy answer."
Of the possible solutions, Nickerson said the town potentially could renegotiate its capacity with New London and Waterford, as part of the soon-expiring tri-town agreement, in 2020. For that to happen, though, capacity would, in essence, need to be taken from New London or Waterford, or both — something the three towns would have to work out together, said Joe Lanzafame, New London’s director of public utilities.
As part of the 10 million gallons the plant can process per day, New London uses 55 percent of that amount, while Waterford is allowed 30 percent and East Lyme, 15 percent.
According to Lanzafame, New London, too, doesn’t have much capacity to give away but there is some room for flexibility. And while Waterford is not expecting to soon hit its capacity limit, First Selectman Dan Steward also didn't express an eagerness to give some of his town's allotment away, noting several complex sewer issues require more discussion among the towns.
“It all depends on what (East Lyme) wants to ask for,” Lanzafame said. “If they said they needed an additional 500,000 gallons, that would definitely be a hardship. There is no way we could find that kind of capacity. ... If they asked for just 50,000, we could probably work with that.”
A second option, according to Nickerson and Kargl, would be for East Lyme to negotiate with the state for some of its allotted capacity as outlined in a separate agreement with the town. The state takes up nearly 500,000 gallons of the town’s allotted 1.5 million gallons negotiated in the tri-town agreement.
According to Kargl’s estimates, though, the state uses, on average, less than half that capacity — especially now after the 2011 closing of J. B. Gates Correctional Institution.
“But I don’t know if they want to give it all up, either,” Kargl said, explaining that the state also uses capacity through Camp Niantic and might want to add Rocky Neck State Park, which still functions on a septic system, to the sewer system.
“It’s not a foregone conclusion that we can even get (some of their) capacity. It won’t be easy,” Kargl continued. “We also don’t know the (state’s) long-term plans and what they will want to keep.”
As a last resort, Kargl mentioned the possibility of expanding New London’s wastewater treatment plant — an incredibly complicated issue, according to him and Lanzafame, that goes beyond the scope of East Lyme’s capacity issue.
“That could mean millions and millions of dollars needed to do that. And that’s a whole other interesting topic,” Kargl said. “So the answers are really not that easy to come by.”
Meanwhile, in the first of some steps needed to manage its remaining capacity, East Lyme’s Water and Sewer Commission passed policy changes earlier this month dictating how long a development can hold on to its allotted capacity. The idea behind the policy change, Nickerson said, was to ensure that developments can’t hold on to allotted capacity without a timely intention to build.
The provisions now dictate that a developer, after receiving an allotment from the town’s Water and Sewer Commission, has about five years to obtain necessary land use permits and tie in to the town’s sewer system before the allotment expires.
“We aren’t trying to bury a developer with these provisions, but (we are trying) to do it in such a way that won’t tie up capacity,” Nickerson said.
Landmark and its allotted 118,000 gallons in Oswegatchie Hills will be exempted from that rule, Nickerson said, and, according to Kargl, only Pazz Development LLC will fall under the new policy, due the timing of its application.
"Right now we have new regulations and I’m figuring out how we will comprise it and administer it," Kargl said. "But we are not going to have a lot of capacity left to do a lot with this (provision)."
The town also must contemplate how holding off further development potentially could affect its grand list and tax base, especially as the town looks to pay out $37.5 million in bonds over the next 20 years for the elementary school renovation project, among other incoming expenses. On the flip side, incoming developments, such as Costco and the Gateway Commons, once fully built out, will bring hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue, Nickerson said.
“The town’s goal is not economic growth at any cost. The economic development that is coming in is appreciated and has been on the table for a while,” Nickerson said.
“The alternative is to get a lot of capacity and rezone some fields into commercial and industrial to allow for added growth and build, build, build,” he continued. “I don’t think that’s the will of the people, though. People who live here did not move here or stay here because they wanted to see this town grow, grow, grow.”
Even still, Nickerson acknowledged that the town likely would need more capacity than what it has.
“That’s the ultimate question that the Water and Sewer Commission is looking at, along with input from Zoning and input from the Board of Selectmen,” Nickerson said. “Do we need any more capacity? Should a moratorium be more of a state (where we say), ‘We are not putting anyone else on the sewage line’? That what we have is what we have? That might not be so bad."
“We are seeing the end of our available capacity, so I think it will forge a dialogue about where we are going from here,” Nickerson said. “It’s going to create a dialogue in this town, and with the citizens, about where we are and if we are at a place where we should hold off.”
Day Staff Writer Benjamin Kail contributed to this report.
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