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Can towns without infrastructure still attract growth?

Villages without municipal water or septic systems may be at an economic disadvantage

The three questions visitors most often ask Marilyn Distelberg are: Where is there a cell phone signal? What is there to do in Newfane? Does her store have a public restroom?

The first two are easy to answer, she said; the third is a little indelicate.

Of the barriers to economic development in Windham County’s smaller towns and villages, aging population, lower wages than surrounding counties, and poor Internet connections come to mind. But what about more basic aspects of human civilization that we all access at least once a day?

Vermont’s towns traditionally formed along rivers in densely populated village centers. The village buildings also traditionally had private wells and septic systems.

According to the Windham Regional Commission, towns in Windham County lacking municipal sewer systems include Dummerston, Grafton, Whitingham, Jamaica, Londonderry and South Londonderry, Newfane, South Newfane, Williamsville, Saxtons River, Townshend, Vernon, Wardsboro, West Dover, Halifax, and Westminster.

Some towns have water or wastewater systems that serve the villages. For example, Algiers Village in Guilford is served by Brattleboro’s wastewater system. Whitingham’s villages of Jacksonville and Whitingham have also installed small systems. Downtown Putney is another example. Mount Snow and Stratton Mountain ski areas have water and sewer systems that also serve a portion of their host towns.

The state’s top planning goal is that development in towns should continue as it traditionally has with compact downtowns and villages, in part, to combat sprawl and preserve the rural landscape.

But can smaller villages and towns expand their economic base without municipal water and septic?

“It has an impact,” said Marilyn Distelberg, a Newfane resident, and, with her husband, Bob, owner of the Newfane Country Store.

During the heavy summer tourism season, Distelberg and the Newfane Market next door co-rent a Porta Potty as a courtesy to travelers. In the winter, Distelberg occasionally permits customers to use the employee restroom.

Like many of its neighbors, Newfane lacks municipal water and sewer systems. The septic tank for Distelberg’s building manages the couple’s upstairs apartment and the employees’ toilet but couldn’t handle more on a regular basis, she said.

The lack of public restrooms makes a difference for Distelberg because Newfane’s primary economy is tourism.

Bus groups bring a lot of people, she said.

Distelberg has seen the number of visiting buses drop in the 11 years she’s owned the store.

Although she doesn’t peg the decline to the lack of public restrooms exclusively, it is, in her view, a factor.

As a former member of a local business association, Distelberg approached bus companies a few years ago about bringing more visitors to town. According to Distelberg, several companies she approached said they couldn’t stay long as the town lacked public restrooms.

According to Distelberg, the town had discussed installing public restrooms in the village: the idea didn’t fly. Distelberg recalls that some people worried the public toilets would become a public nuisance.

Ultimately, she said, only village business owners were affected by the issue.

“[Public toilets] are not business killers, but they are business factors,” she said.

Answering a need

Newfane Town Clerk and Selectboard member Gloria Cristelli said she has spoken with Distelberg and other business owners about a need for municipal septic systems.

“We all have to use the facilities,” said Cristelli.

Evidence of a lack of a municipal water and sewer systems hurting local businesses is largely anecdotal, however.

When the Old Newfane Inn on the village green closed several years ago, Cristelli said, she surmised an inadequate septic system was involved.

Indeed, most of the people this reporter interviewed on the subject in Newfane pointed to inadequate septic systems as a factor in the closure of a couple local inns.

It could cost a new business owner thousands of dollars to upgrade or install a septic system, Cristelli said.

And Cristelli said the issue of municipal sewer crops up during the town’s seasonal fairs, such as the Newfane Heritage Festival in October. (The town rents Porta Potties for that event.)

The town discussed installing a municipal water and septic system a few years ago, said Cristelli. But then Tropical Storm Irene hit in 2011. Since then, storm recovery has taken priority.

Londonderry, in the northwest of Windham County, contains two small villages, both on the West River, three miles apart.

The town has purchased land for a municipal wastewater treatment plant, said Town Administrator Kevin Beattie.

The lack of money and the lack of the public requests has kept the plan on a “someday, when we need it” timeline, he said.

Londonderry lacks municipal infrastructure generally, he added.

Most of the village properties have wells and septic tanks. Nearby ski areas Magic Mountain and Stratton Mountain have their own septic systems, said Beattie.

Beattie could not quantify where economic development suffered due to a lack of a municipal wastewater system. He did say he would not be surprised to learn septic systems are limiting economic development in the villages of Londonderry and South Londonderry.

Those septic systems are old enough to be grandfathered under new state rules. Unless a property owner can afford to install a new septic system, how the property can be used or how many people it can serve will be limited by the current septic system.

Beattie described Londonderry’s general economic development as flat. The town’s economy centers on serving tourism at the ski areas and second-home type jobs such as hospitality, landscaping, and carpentry.

“We’re pretty dependent on that,” said Beattie.

It’s not a bad thing, except that the town’s economy needs diversifying, he said.

‘We have a lot of thinking to do...’

Still recovering from Irene’s damage, the town recently participated in a planning and re-visioning workshop with Marlboro College’s Center for Creative Solutions and Windham Regional Commission.

“We have a lot of thinking to do here in town,” he said, adding that the town may need to reshape its identity.

Some of Windham County’s smaller villages have taken the leap to install municipal water and sewer systems.

Wilmington constructed a wastewater treatment plant and system in 1964. In 1987 the system underwent substantial upgrades. Two years later, the town expanded the system to its current seven pump stations, 275 connections, and about seven miles of sewer lines.

Before 1964, the village’s waste drained into the Deerfield River and nearby streams.

Some of the old toilet pipes, now sealed, still jut from the stone retaining wall along the river on South Main Street.

When asked how Wilmington justified the expense of installing the system, John Lazelle, chief operator of Wilmington’s wasterwater treatment plant, responded, “You kind of have to."

“Where would [people’s] waste go?” he added.

Wilmington’s village does not have enough land to support individual in-ground systems, he said.

Consider Dot’s Restaurant, which abuts Route 9 and the river: Where would they put an in-ground system? Lazelle asked.

Here Lazelle speaks to the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act, known as the Clean Water Act, which spurred the town to install its first treatment plant.

Over the years, Wilmington has taken advantage of state and federal funding to install its municipal water and sewer systems. Upgrades were paid through a bond that all taxpayers helped repay. Users of the municipal water and sewer system pay for its operation through fees, said Lazelle.

Although the system covers the village, principally, Lazelle said a line also extends to the Deerfield Valley Elementary School on Route 100.

Lazelle said he believes municipal water and sewer are “a huge piece of the puzzle for [economic] growth."

Lazelle pointed to the cost of installing an individual system and adequate water for fire protection as two needs municipal water and waste systems help prospective businesses bypass.

The state requires buildings have sprinkler systems for fire protection, he said. A home well would not supply enough water for a sprinkler to be effective.

Installing a new septic system can be a big hurdle for a new business, Lazelle said.

For a business like a 50-seat restaurant to meet state requirements, it must have septic system designed to handle 30 gallons of discharge a day per seat, Lazelle explained.

‘Not new, but urgent...’

Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, said that although the water and sewer issue is not new, it is urgent. The current Windham Regional Plan highlights water and septic as potential limitation to economic expansion.

In the Commission’s July newsletter, Campany wrote that some villages may find themselves “between a rock and full septic tank."

“Anecdotal evidence would indicate that when the realities of existing village properties (lot size and aging individual well and septic systems) meet the realities of water and wastewater regulations necessary to protect human health, it’s not just new development that is challenging,” Campany wrote.

In his opinion, the potentially high costs of replacing aging septic systems may harm existing businesses and housing and deter new businesses from entering a village.

Campany continued, “Retaining existing businesses, and in some cases homes, is at risk. As properties come up for sale, as aging systems need to be repaired, or as residences or businesses seek to expand, the costs associated with private wastewater regulatory compliance can be prohibitive.”

Regulatory compliance will come into play eventually, especially in villages where aging septic tanks are near drinking wells, Campany said.

In the newsletter, Campany supported the state’s water regulations and argued for the region or state to help find a cost-effective design and funding for villages to install municipal water and waste systems.

Why involve the state or region? In Campany’s opinion, the health of Vermont’s villages ultimately affects the health of every Vermont town.

“Our villages are our economic, civic, social, and cultural centers, and as they wither, so will the culture and economy of our region and the state as a whole,” Campany wrote.

It costs Vermont to lose businesses and homeowners in its small villages, he said: “We’re losing the very things that make the Windham Region and Vermont the special places that they are.”

In a separate interview, Campany said state planning policy drives municipal planning priorities. Courts will consider the state’s goal of concentrated villages in an Act 250 hearing, for example.

The state’s top planning goal for its regions and towns is development that maintains the historic settlement pattern of compact village centers with swaths of rural countryside between the villages.

Yet villages can’t grow their businesses or populations on the majority of existing well and septic systems, he said, characterizing the restriction as “basically banging your head against the wall."

Most of the issue remains anecdotal, and the problem’s specifics are mostly unknown, he said.

Campany said he hopes to conduct a feasibility study to identify the scope of the issue, develop conceptual designs for municipal water and sewer systems, and develop financing and fiscal management plans for the towns and region.

In an attempt to dig into the issue of municipal water and septic’s effect on economic development, the WRC has submitted a proposal as part of the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) being developed by the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS).

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Originally published in The Commons issue #219 (Wednesday, September 4, 2013).

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