November 18, 2009

New website tracks sewer saga

As published in The Erin Advocate

Erin finally has a website to help people keep track of what's going on in the Town's quest for a sewer system.

With a link on the home page of the Town website,, you can explore the "Defining Erin" site. It explains the stages of the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) study and has the results of "visioning" sessions, including a public meeting last May with 40 residents attending. Recently, there was a session with 55 local real estate agents and another with 10 members of the Business Improvement Area.

The website also includes comments from Erin students, who wrote 19 letters telling the planners how they would like Erin to look in the future. Comments can still be submitted, and you can provide your email address to receive reports when they are released. Comments so far show that residents do not want Erin to lose its small-town character.

"You like to cheat," said Project Manager Matt Pearson, at a Liaison Committee meeting last month. "You like the proximity to urban centres, but you don't want to be one."

A report is expected soon from Credit Valley Conservation on environmental aspects of the SSMP, and the Town may ask for additional technical studies. Two main public meetings are scheduled, one in March to review the problems, and one next fall to discuss solutions.

"A longer timeframe allows for more understanding of the solutions," said Pearson. "More of a bottom up approach, than a top down imposition."

Since 2007, there has been virtually no growth in the Town's urban areas, and little is expected until sewers and a treatment plant are built. The SSMP study will take until the end of 2010, and it will be at least five years after that before any service is in place.

Population growth would be moderate, even with sewers. By 2031, the County estimates Erin village would grow by 1,300, to a total of 4,400 people; Hillsburgh would grow by 700, to a total of 2,080 and the rural area would grow by 1,040, to a total of 9,050.

The sewer project will mean significant costs and disruption for the Town and property owners in the urban areas, but it also represents an opportunity to build a better community and safeguard the natural environment.

"You will need to chase grants – it's going to be expensive," said Pearson. There is no cost projection yet, but the failed plan from 1995 for Erin village alone was estimated at $25 million. Sewage facilities are prime candidates for infrastructure funding though. Grand Valley and Mount Forest have recently received substantial federal and provincial grants for their systems.

If no sewers are built, there will also be major costs and disruption in Erin. Pearson said it is estimated that 30 per cent of local septic systems are deficient. The average lifespan of a septic system is 25-30 years, but the average system in Erin village is 34 years old. Town records show only 23 systems replaced in a recent 8-year period.

"There are many failed systems in the community," said Pamela Scharfe, of the consulting firm B.M. Ross, making a presentation on septic systems to the Liaison Committee.

The Town has the authority to set up an inspection system that could force property owners to repair or replace deficient septic systems, but it has not done so.

The Ontario Building Code is stricter now than when most local houses were built. About half the septic systems in Erin village and Hillsburgh cannot be replaced with a standard tank and leaching bed, because the lots are less than 15,000 square feet (100' x 150'). They will require smaller systems that include an extra treatment phase, and cost $5,000 to $10,000 extra. Owners must pay for a maintenance contract, and problems may be reported to the health unit.

A 1995 study by the Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Health Unit also found that 94 Erin village lots were inaccessible for the equipment needed to replace their septic systems, due to large trees and the houses being too close together. If a system like this failed completely, the house could be declared uninhabitable.

Meetings of the SSMP Liaison Committee, which has representatives from local government, businesses and environment/social service groups, are not formal public meetings, but they are open to the public.