January 25, 2012

Sewer study back on its bumpy track

As published in The Erin Advocate

After more than a year of no news, Erin's Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) got back on track last week, as Town Council received a presentation on a Background Report that is expected to lead to a public meeting in March.

Project Manager Matt Pearson, of the B.M. Ross consulting firm, explained to councillors and residents who filled the council chamber that the environmental assessment, which started in 2009, has finished its information-gathering phase.

The actual Background Report, with extensive information on the infrastructure, economy, housing, environment and social fabric of Hillsburgh and Erin village, will be available in a few weeks on the Town website.

It will not include any recommendations, or discuss the costs of new infrastructure. The consultant is not advocating any one solution, but the report does assemble evidence that would support construction of a sewage system, if the community decides that it needs the benefits that such a system would bring.

"If you want affordable housing, or seniors housing, you won't get it on septics," said Pearson. Erin is reputed to be the largest town in Ontario without sewers. Instead of septic beds, downtown businesses must use holding tanks which are expensive to pump out regularly.

"There's an elephant in the room – something happened before, and it didn't work," he said, referring to the 1991-1995 environmental assessment and plan to build a $25 million sewage treatment plant in Erin village. It failed due to lack of provincial funding and concern about hook-up costs.

Late last year, Mayor Lou Maieron gave notice of a motion to discontinue the SSMP and refer all development issues to the Ontario Municipal Board, but later deferred the motion before it came up for debate. He said he does not plan to re-introduce the motion for now, while people read the new report.

The next step is writing a "Problem/Opportunity Statement", with input from the citizen-based Liaison Committee and the agency-based Core Management Committee. It will have to be approved by council before the study can proceed. The statement will be a basis for discussion at a public meeting in March.

That meeting was originally expected in March 2010, but there has been a series of delays. Residents can comment on the study and get more information on the town website, www.erin.ca/definingerin, though it has not been updated since late 2010.

The next phase will involve engineering work and agency input to develop several options and stages of possible construction of sewer and water supply improvements. There would then be another public meeting. To complete the study, council will have to choose an option. Pearson says all this could happen within one year. Actual construction of a sewage system would be a separate decision at a later date.

The SSMP is being done at the insistence of Credit Valley Conservation (CVC), freezing proposed new subdivisions for the past five years. The Ministry of the Environment has told Erin that a sewage system is "required" to serve urban areas and handle the septage pumped from rural septic tanks, and that the Town must demonstrate on ongoing commitment and progress towards that goal.

The first phase of the current study has tried to capture the community's vision for the next 25 years, though Pearson said it has been difficult to keep the process on track. He said various other communities have attempted SSMP studies, only to have them "derailed" and left incomplete.

"It's a chance to do it right. It's an opportunity to get the whole picture, not just one person's agenda or somebody else's agenda. It's a chance to try to bring together the community's agenda and put it into practice," he said.

"It's going to give you something concrete, to shop around for senior government money. That's always the problem for whatever you decide to do. How are we going to afford that? If you want to get government money (and it comes and goes like the wind), you have to have a plan. I have been in this business a long time, and I have seen many communities just like yours get grants for this kind of stuff."

Maieron remains skeptical of the process, which he fears could lead to sharp population increases and the need for expensive new services for those people. He questions the wisdom of spending money working towards a sewer system, when the CVC has not been able to say for certain whether the Credit River has sufficient water flow to handle the discharge from a sewage treatment plant.

He also says that if Town Council did not have the political will recently to force a small number of residents to hook up to the Town water system, it is unrealistic to think it would ever be willing to force large numbers of residents to hook up to sewers.

"We're frozen. We have planning costs, but we're not doing a lot of planning. We're not pulling in much in development charges because nothing major is happening," he said to Pearson. "Yet developers say, 'If we were to develop the servicing to the provincial standards, drilled a well and put in sewage, and grew to the capacity that the county official plan suggests, of six and a half homes an acre, minimum, why can't we go ahead?'...

"It's a tough puzzle, because it will come back to those with the newer houses saying, 'I've just invested a lot of money in a tertiary [septic] system that works; why do I want to replace it?' And those with older houses that are limited because of lot size, as came up in the water discussion, saying, 'I may not be able to afford it'.

"If I had my way, I would leave the villages of Erin and Hillsburgh alone, and go build something outside the Green Belt, and start from new, where you could put in all the infrastructure you wanted."