Protect the Partrick Wetlands
and our Community

Wastewater Treatment Plant Plans Presented
(doesn't mean Sewers should extend all over)
By Kirk Lang
Printed in the Westport News

Steve Edwards, Westport's Public Works Department director, presented a special permit and Coastal Area Management site plan application to the Planning and Zoning Commission Thursday to upgrade the existing wastewater treatment plant to conform to federal and state regulations and standards.

The P&Z has yet to vote on the special permit request for the facility located on Elaine Road. The item is scheduled for tomorrow's work session.

Zoning commissioner Helen Martin Block asked Edwards how long he could maintain the effectiveness of the plant if the zoning board were to vote against the project proposal. Edwards guessed maybe until 2007 or 2008.

"The issue you can't deal with is its age. It's a 40-year-old plant," he said, pointing out that people buy new cars before their old ones leave them stranded on the road.

"As things break, my ability to repair them is significantly impaired," he said. "The main control panel (at the wastewater treatment facility) could break tomorrow. Then I'm investing money into something that will have to be replaced in three years."

"I'm just trying to buy some time," said Block. "So we can maintain residential areas in a way the town actually supports."

Edwards answered, "Considering the town's liability, my recommendation is to go forward now."

While the multimillion dollar improvements will reduce nitrogen levels discharged into the Saugatuck River and Long Island Sound, the proposal had its share of critics.

Matthew Mandell and Sean Timmins, who fought ARS Partners' development plan for the former F.D. Rich property that was before the P&Z last year, cited their concern about the facility. Both are members of the Partrick Wetlands Preservation Fund, which works on preservation and development issues.

Citing the 1997 Town Plan of Development and the draft of the state's Plan of Conservation and Development, Mandell said there are recommendations to limit expansion of sewer lines only for those cases when new standards must be met or to solve existing area-wide problems. "The Primary Goal of the Utilities plan in the Westport Town Plan ... says: 'A sewer and waste treatment system that is adequate to serve the disposal requirements of the Town of Westport, but which is not intended to promote new or more intensive development.' ".

The firm of Stearns & Wheeler was hired a couple of years ago by the Department of Public Works to prepare a plan to evaluate infiltration and inflow to the sewer system and identify capacity and treatment problems. Timmins said the firm's 2002 report does not recommend sewers on Wilton Road, Partrick Road, Old Hill Road, Newtown Turnpike, Rice's Lane and Sunny Lane, as well as other areas of town, at least until 2025.

"Of concern to our group is a potential sewer extension north on Route 33, or other roads to Partrick Road, the Partrick wetlands and beyond. There are no area problems in this location or around it and the environmentally sensitive and rural character of the neighborhood would be jeopardized by the over-development sewer lines would create," Mandell said, adding that the new state plan identifies the area as a mix of preservation and rural land.

Mandell told the P&Z members: "You are the Planning and Zoning Commission. Planning is important. Decisions you make cannot be based solely on a case-by-case basis. You need to [to] see how decisions now impact the future. It is a great burden you bear, but it is something you must carry."

During public comment, Ann Gill, a former P&Z chairman, noted that the $35 million wastewater treatment plant upgrade will be paid for by users of the system, which she said may be "an incentive for more users."

She said the problem would be one-acre zoning. "One-acre zones were created to be served primarily by septics. I have no problem with smaller lots being served by the sewer but one-acre lots using sewers is wrong," she said.

"With the pressure on land, a smart lawyer could come in, state and might win an argument in court that there is no longer a need for one-acre lots in an area served by sewers. Thus zoning will be broken, there will be an increase in the number of people in town, the infrastructure will be taxed and there will be more runoff," she said.

Gill conceded that residents with failing septic systems may turn to sewers, but there are alternatives. "A septic can be put anywhere, it is only a matter of money. Old septics can be dug out, a new type of system could be built and better care could be taken of the existing septic system."

She urged the P&Z to become involved in setting the guidelines to control sewer facilities expansion and to provide better education on septic system care.

P&Z Commissioner David Press offered his thoughts. "What we're faced with, on the map there, is where you can put municipal or affordable housing. Over the long haul, when town facilities have to be expanded, are we going to be constantly putting them on small parcels of land in the south end of town?"

Mandell said the Stearns & Wheeler report recommends more than the south end for sewer expansion. However, Press referred to some of the public's comments as "a collar to being able to put in affordable housing."

P&Z Commissioner James Cochrane quizzed Edwards as to how many users might hook up to the sewer over the next few years.

Edwards said the town could handle 40-50 houses a year with a new facility. He said when people come in to his office seeking to hook up to the sewer, "most of the time I'm saying no, or I will pass their request on to the Water Pollution Control Authority."

The wastewater treatment plant is currently designed for a capacity of treating 2.85 million gallons per day (mgd) of effluent. The facilities plan prepared by Stearns & Wheeler described eight alternatives that were evaluated to upgrade and expand the existing facility, including a "no action" alternative. Without action, though, the town could be in violation of the requirements of national standards.

If the plant, built in 1960, was not upgraded, Westport would most likely be forced to trade nitrogen credits with another community at a high expense. The nitrogen trading program was established so that communities who cannot meet required nitrogen levels can trade credits with communities who do meet standards. Town officials do not advise that plan because of Westport's proximity to Long Island Sound and the abundance of shellfish beds in this area.

Construction of the new facility is expected to take two-and-a-half years over three phases.

"We will not maintain our capacity during construction and we may not meet all of our effluent guidelines," said Edwards.

P&Z member Michael Stashower asked if the project would affect homeowners.

"Homeowners can keep flushing," said Edwards.

An undeveloped area adjacent to the existing facility would allow for a smoother construction schedule. Yet, Bill Brinks of Stearns & Wheeler, said it will still be a challenge to build a new facility and keep the old one on line.

The new plant, according to Stearns & Wheeler, will alleviate operating, maintenance and safety problems associated with treatment units and equipment at the existing plant; improve treatment to meet more stringent limits for nitrogen required by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection for discharge to Long Island Sound and improve energy efficiency and the ability to monitor and control the process and manage and repair the facilities.

Edwards said Elaine Road will be closed to traffic during construction. "With the exception of the dog pound area, everyone in here is here for the treatment plant."