Richmond and Westford have for years been planning to upgrade their sewage-disposal systems, and they’re about to receive some of the money they need to get started.
The money for the Chittenden County towns — $147,947 for Richmond, $466,194 for Westford — is coming from the Northern Border Regional Commission, a combined state and federal program that uses federal money to support community development projects in the Northeast. The influx of cash will help kickstart the work, according to local leaders.
St. Johnsbury is also slated to receive funds from the program — $135,859 for the construction of a cross-country trail and underpass connecting the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail to St. Johnsbury’s designated downtown.
Investing in wastewater disposal systems is crucial to supporting economic development, addressing the housing crisis, combating climate change and protecting natural resources, said Julie Moore, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.
“It might not be the high-profile, sexy project of renovating a derelict building, but wastewater infrastructure is necessary to keeping our village centers happy and healthy,” she said.
The alternative, said Moore, is private septic systems for sewage disposal, which require a fair amount of land for leach fields and make it difficult to have compact growth in downtown areas.
Often, communities without sewer systems also lack municipal water systems, meaning residents must rely on private wells for their drinking water. Wells and septic systems can wind up competing for the same land and having them too close can raise concerns of cross contamination.
“As you might expect, my agency requires a certain separation between those. You don’t want a leach field right next to your well,” she said.
Richmond hopes to apply its federal grant toward a $401,800 plan to expand the town’s wastewater district along Route 2, so existing homes and businesses can hook into the municipal sewer lines and set up infrastructure that will allow for growth, according to Josh Arneson, town manager for Richmond.
Now, Richmond’s sewer system serves about 500 homes and businesses close to the town center. Elsewhere in the community, residents rely on private septic systems.
It processes approximately 68,883 gallons of wastewater per day, close to 39% of its capacity, according to an engineering report commissioned by the town. The system has the capacity to serve a greater number of users and process more septage, more accounts just need to be hooked up to the municipal wastewater system.
If residents vote in December to expand the sewer system, connections for up to 100 homes and businesses could start as early as the summer of 2023, Arneson said.
“Access to municipal water and sewer opens up additional options for development, increasing property value,” he said.
In Westford, the town plans to scrap its reliance on aging septic systems and leach fields that no longer comply with environmental rules. The replacement will be a modern municipal sewer system that can process about 13,000 gallons a day.
Concerns about outdated systems in the town’s center date back 15 years but Westford began planning in earnest for a municipal sewer system in 2007, said Melissa Manka, the town planner.
The town hopes the $466,194 coming from the Northern Border Regional Commission and federal money available from Covid relief programs will help expedite the project, which is expected to cost between $2.2 million and $2.4 million. Westford hopes the sewer system will be operational by mid-2023.
“If we don’t want property values to depreciate, if we don’t want sprawl, if we want large, expansive working lands, we need folks to be able to reside and work in our villages,” Manka said. “That’s why it’s important that villages have this infrastructure.”
In Chittenden County, seven of the 19 municipalities have no sewer system — Bolton, Charlotte, Huntington, Jericho, Underhill, St. George and Westford.
From a regional standpoint, compact development in villages is a good thing, said Charles Baker, executive director of the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission. But not everyone wants to see more development, he said. “Depending on who you are, development is a good or a bad thing,” Baker said.
Right now, Charlotte and Huntington are debating whether adding a municipal sewer system is the right next step for their communities.
This issue is not limited to Chittenden County. Close to 200 towns in Vermont lack municipal sewer systems, Moore said. “It’s pretty endemic to the way Vermont built out and really a constraint to development.”
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