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    Monday, July 22, 2024

    Old Lyme beach sewer plan remains backed up as costs climb

    Dennis Melluzzo stands in the front yard of his home in the Sound View area of Old Lyme Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Melluzzo is among Sound View residents who are upset at the idea of funding a sewer installation project they don't believe is necessary. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Dennis Melluzzo stands in the front yard of his home in the Sound View area of Old Lyme Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Melluzzo is among Sound View residents who are upset at the idea of funding a sewer installation project they don't believe is necessary. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Old Lyme ― Years after the state forced a response to pollution emanating from the shores of Old Lyme, a plan to install sewers in four beach communities remains backed up amid economic pressures.

    Local officials including Old Lyme Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA) Chairman Steve Cinami have blamed the latest delays on inflationary fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, which they said drove up the cost of a shared pump station and force main slated to be built near Sound View Beach.

    But Cinami recently said he was optimistic that the infusion of at least $15 million in state and federal funding, combined with a new round of construction bids this fall, could get the project started by January or February.

    The project has evolved over the years to include the private beach associations of Old Lyme Shores, Old Colony and Miami Beach, as well as the Sound View neighborhood governed by the town. Tightly-packed neighborhoods there have greeted generations of families who return year after year for sand castles on the beaches, crabs on the flat rocks, and painted ponies on the Carousel.

    With the influx comes the perennial problem of demand on outdated septic systems in close proximity to the delicate ecosystem where freshwater creeks mix with the salt of the Atlantic Ocean.

    State officials going back to a 1982 order from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) have been trying to get the town to stop polluting groundwater, surface water and tidal water. More recent orders from the agency led to the creation of the current plan for the shared sewer system Cinami estimated at roughly $50 million.

    DEEP project engineer Carlos Esguerra on Friday said the presence of many houses on small lots with sandy soil makes septic systems, many of which are outdated, ineffective at preventing sewage from getting into the groundwater.

    He said groundwater testing in a 2013 report produced by the Woodard & Curran engineering firm revealed ammonia and bacteria levels indicating the presence of raw sewage.

    He emphasized about half of the project area is within a flood plain, where he said climate change and the associated sea level rise will only diminish the capacity of septic systems to adequately discharge into the ground.

    Climbing costs

    Before the first ceremonial shovel tosses up sandy soil to signal the start of construction, Cinami said a town-wide vote will be called to authorize the bond amount for Sound View’s share of the project. That’s because costs have increased since it was first approved in 2019 at $9.4 million.

    Members of the beach associations, which operate as separate municipalities, will also have to vote.

    Cinami declined to specify the updated cost of the project pending presentation to the Board of Selectmen on July 15. But he said while the overall price tag has gone up, the cost to individuals in the beach communities will be less because the state is offering grant funding and a forgivable loan.

    “We’re borrowing more money, but we’re incurring less debt,” he said.

    The WPCA has said all along that the cost of the Sound View portion of the project ― including its share of the pump station and pressurized pipe ― would be borne exclusively by the residents of the beach community.

    This week, members of the grassroots Sound View Coalition said they remain ready to sue the WPCA if officials follow through with a cost structure they say puts an unfair burden on them.

    The Sound View Coalition emerged in opposition to the project in 2019 as the “whole sewer issue started to come to the surface,” according to member Frank Pappalardo. That’s when voters at a town-wide referendum agreed to add the neighborhood to the existing plan for sewers in the three private beach communities.

    Pappalardo also serves as chairman of the Sound View Commission, the advisory group to the selectmen established to preserve, promote and assist in the development of the area.

    The coalition’s attorney, Keith Ainsworth, told the WPCA in a 2020 letter that state statute prevents the agency from foisting the cost of the sewerage system onto the Sound View neighborhood.

    “If the WPCA continues to press an obvious plan to distribute the cost of the sewering program onto my clients’ neighborhood in a disproportionate fashion, legal action is likely to follow,” he wrote.

    The average Sound View homeowner based on estimates at the time of the referendum would be on the hook for a lump sum of $31,007, or $944 a year over 20 years – plus $430 in annual fees. But Cinami said the DEEP grant, for which terms still have not been finalized, is likely to bring the cost down to about $27,000.

    At the center of the coalition’s opposition is a state statute governing how much municipalities can charge property owners for sewer systems. The law dictates the town cannot assess property owners for any amount higher than the percent increase in the property value attributed to the sewers.

    An appraiser hired by the coalition in a 2020 report found the sewer system would increase residential property values by 7% and commercial properties by 10%.

    “This is a town infrastructure project and the residents of Sound View are not paying any more than what their fair share is,” Pappalardo said. “We have case law behind us. We will take the WPCA to court. We will win.”

    Poop has to go somewhere’

    Dennis Melluzzo, a member of the coalition who was appointed this year to the WPCA, said the project will drive out longtime property owners who can’t afford the sewer bill while wealthy residents further clog the area.

    When “wanna-be” locals build “monstrosities,” he said, “their poop has to go somewhere.”

    A revised agreement with New London outlining how much flow the wastewater treatment facility will accept and how much it will cost is currently being negotiated.

    New London Director of Public Utilities Joseph Lanzafame said the agreement was originally signed in 2020 based on the assumption the system would be operational by 2023. The terms of the new agreement specify Old Lyme will be sending flow to New London by 2028.

    “There’s been a lot of time and energy in getting to the end point and we’re happy to see we’re getting close,” he said.

    Melluzzo was appointed to the WPCA by the Board of Selectmen as a full member in January, while coalition member Mary Daley was appointed as an alternate member. He said he was invited by First Selectwoman Martha Shoemaker to apply.

    Shoemaker this week said Melluzzo and Daley’s perspective is important.

    “They represent the residents that are affected by this project,” she said.

    Also central to the coalition’s argument is the belief that the DEEP is relying on outdated data collected in Sound View between 1998 and 2013 as evidence that a pollution problem exists. Members said some septic systems have been updated since then, others have been demolished, and a town-wide ordinance enacted in 1997 to require residents to pump out their systems every seven years has had time to make a difference.

    The nonprofit Save the Sound environmental organization since 2021 has awarded Sound View Beach an A+ rating because no fecal-indicator bacteria was found in more than a dozen water samples taken each year. The group looks for the bacteria as an indication that untreated sewage or abundant polluted stormwater is entering the water.

    Esguerra, the DEEP project engineer, said his agency looks at groundwater data before it gets to the Long Island Sound.

    “The tide comes in, comes out, dilutes everything, but that doesn’t mean the groundwater is not affected in the community,” he said.

    The source of the problem

    According to Pappalardo and the Sound View Coalition, new data is a necessary to determine if pollution currently exists.

    “We need to know if there’s a problem,” he said. “We still don’t know if there’s a problem.”

    The DEEP in 2016 agreed to additional testing at Hawk’s Nest Beach, which is also governed by the town. The WPCA at the time agreed to monitor the area but not to include it in the sewer plan.

    Esguerra said additional testing in Sound View will not change the underlying issue.

    “The source of this problem is still there,” he said. “The density of development hasn’t improved at all.”

    According to the coalition, the town should be looking at alternative solutions including modern individual and community septic systems that would be effective and less expensive.

    Cinami, the WPCA chairman, in March called for the creation a subcommittee consisting of Melluzzo, Daley and alternate WPCA member John Flick to look into alternatives to sewer installation.

    “I don’t see an alternate method being accepted by the DEEP,” he said. “I said the only way they would convince themselves is to do the investigation and go to DEEP with their findings and see if they accept it.”

    Esguerra said the idea of approving an alternative septic system in the Sound View area would likely rise to the level of Commissioner Katie Dykes.

    For his part, he emphasized the state is on board with the sewer plan through the forgivable loan and grants that add up to about 50% of the total cost. He said the three beach communities and the Old Lyme WPCA have been working together on the complicated project with a lot of “moving parts,” with each one reliant on the other.

    “Significant time and effort has been invested in pursuing the sewer line option,” he said. “We’re trying to keep everybody moving in the same direction.”

    e.regan@theday.com

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