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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, October 16, 2008

In Berne
Updates and complaints on proposed sewer-use ordinance

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — Some residents have concerns with the town’s plan for a new sewer system in the hamlet that has been in development for years now. A team of town officials and other experts, which has been in place for close to two years, is looking to offer answers.

Making up this team are Supervisor Kevin Crosier, Councilman Peter Vance, planning board chairman Gerry Chartier, planning board members Michael Vincent and Paul David Smith, Fred Testa of the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation, Milan Jackson of Lamont Engineers, and town attorney William Conboy.

“We’ve been meeting on a regular basis; recently it’s been about once a month,” said Chartier, who, in addition to being Berne’s planning board chairman, retired from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation not long ago.

The project is designed to help those with substandard septic systems and contaminated wells, while complying with an order on consent from the DEC, which found pollution in the Fox Creek.

“It’s just thousands of details that need to be considered when building one of these projects, and, in a small town like Berne, this might be the largest project the community will ever see,” Chartier said.

Houses and businesses were built in the hamlet long before modern conveniences like washing machines for clothes and dishwashers that tax old-fashioned systems.

Both Chartier and Crosier have estimated the project’s total cost at $2.5 million.

“It’s large, even for a small community, especially when you hire an engineer, and someone like Fred Testa,” said Chartier. “He really is an expert, and he’s been working side-by-side with the town for several years.”

Testa was unavailable for comment this week.

Responding to concerns

Residents have expressed concerns about, among other things, a lack of representation on their behalf throughout the development of the town’s sewer-use ordinance.

After a recent informational meeting, Colin Abele of Berne wrote a letter to the Enterprise editor, expressing his feeling that his and others’ questions had been brushed off by vague responses from those running the meeting. Several residents received uninformative replies like, “It’s complicated,” Abele wrote.

“I was surprised by the perspective of Colin’s article,” said Chartier. “When people were saying things like, ‘It’s difficult or technical,’ it’s because it really was, and maybe even beyond their expertise.”

The people running the meeting were not the experts, Chartier said, and he doesn’t believe they were trying to be evasive. “It’s a lack of familiarity with a technically legal document,” he said. “It’s got a lot of formulas, it’s long, it’s got a glossary of technical terms.”

The 37-page draft of the sewer-use law is available at www.berneny.org.

In his letter, Abele specified certain issues he had with the ordinance, including the lack of allowance for septic tanks, and that residents have to pay for their connection to the system.

“This is based on a model that New York State developed in the 1970s,” said Chartier, “and it’s been used countless times in communities all across the state.” Crosier says that their plan closely follows the one Rensselaerville.

“So, these provisions are more or less ordinary,” Chartier said. He went on to address the issue of banning garbage disposals.

“Say you finish preparing your meal, you take all this organic material, you grind it up in your disposal and put it into the sewer,” Chartier said. “When it gets to the sewer plant, they have to work harder to remove the organic material from the waste-water. So, we simply say, no disposals. Don’t grind up your garbage and put it down the drain,” he said.

In response to complaints about the cost of connection, Chartier said, “In most communities, the public sewer ends right at the shoulder of the street, right at the end of the public right-of-way, and the individual homeowner is responsible for the full cost for the pipe going from the edge of the road to their building.”

In Berne’s case, however, he says that residents are getting a better deal.

“In this case, the town of Berne is actually covering, in the public project, the pipe from the edge of the road to the proximity of the house,” said Chartier. “If it connects into the front yard, the public part of the sewer will come within five feet of the foundation. If the sewer has to connect to the side or back of the property, the public pipes will come halfway to the front or back of the house. So, it’s actually less expensive to connect than it is in most communities,” he said.

He went on: “Some people said, ‘You know, I can shovel, why can’t I make my own connection?’ One, they could damage the public sewer if they hook their backhoe to the public sewer. They could cause damage, and then be responsible for repair or replacement. Secondly, if it’s not done properly, it could leak or break, and that pipe could collapse, causing problems for the entire system. So, we’re discouraging people from pursuing this idea of doing the connection themselves,” said Chartier.

Self-connection to the system would require posting a very large bond, Chartier said. “This would be to indemnify the town if the resident caused damage or made a mistake. There has to be a permit for connection to the system, and part of that permit is posting a bond,” he said.

Still, residents are concerned.

Concerns about cost and representation

“My biggest concern,” said Peggy Smith of Helderberg Trail, “is that I think it’s punitive towards the church buildings in town that are being assessed as dwelling units, when they don’t do laundry, and, if the toilet gets flushed five times a week, it’s a lot. I think it’s a strain,” she said. Smith is the wife of Paul David Smith, a member of the team working on the ordinance. They live within the hamlet.

Smith’s neighbor, Susan Hawkes-Teeter, agrees.

“With the allocation of [equivalent dwelling units], we really felt that the not-for-profit institutions, like the churches and the masons, really should not be given the same full share as a house,” Hawkes-Teeter said.

An equivalent dwelling unit, or EDU, is defined in the sewer law as “a unit of [measurement] used to estimate the amount of wastewater generated by a typical service connection.” Taxes are levied according to a building’s allocated number of EDUs.

“With most of those not-for-profits,” Hawkes-Teeter went on, “people don’t meet as often, they don’t take showers at church, they’re not doing their laundry, so it just seemed unfair. They have nowhere near the water usage that a house or apartment would have. So, we suggested that they be at a much lower rate — they should be allocated at a percentage of an EDU. I think we suggested .25 of a unit,” she said.

To help the situation, Crosier said that the board is looking to establish a grieving process, by which people will be able to request a change in their sewer assessment.

“With a grieving process,” Crosier said, “if somebody was assessed 1.5 EDUs, and they thought they should only be assessed 1 EDU, because there was a mistake made on how much water they’re using, there will be a process for people to be able to come before the town board and have their say, just like with property tax.”

“I also feel really strongly,” Smith said, “that there should be representation by the citizens of the district, as opposed to just having the town board making the decisions, since they have nothing invested in it.”

Again, her neighbor concurs.

“They need to include people from the district in the decision making body,” said Hawkes-Teeter, “regarding expenses particularly, but also with the general progression of putting in the sewer. We’re the ones who are paying the bills, and, from what I understand, regardless of whether or not the sewer goes in, the district is already responsible for quite a sum of money, so it only makes sense that we have some representation,” she said.

As of yet, that representation is not in place.

“The town board would like to have the ordinance passed before the end of the year, because in order to get our project out to bid, we have to have our ordinance in place,” Crosier said. “And it would be a smart thing for us to levy taxes in the sewer district so that we can get ahead of some of this debt, even though the new sewer’s not in the ground.”

Now, the town is responding to regulatory comments from different agencies, Crosier said. “The agencies take our comments and, if they approve of them, then we’re ready to go out to bid.”

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