February 27, 2013

Many consider sewer system too costly

As published in The Erin Advocate

A public meeting on the prospect of a sewer system last week revealed a strong block of opposition, as residents of Erin village and Hillsburgh learned about the costs and disruptions they may have to face.

Concerns ranged from the impact of a sewage treatment plant to the projections of significant population growth, but there were also people who were optimistic about the benefits that sewers might bring to the community.

Matt Pearson, the consultant managing Erin's Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) revealed details of his rough cost estimates, based on a sewage system for a combined urban population of 6,500 (the current total is now about 4,200).

The underground pipe system, with pumping stations, could cost $27 million for Erin village and $9.8 million for Hillsburgh. The sewage treatment plant could cost $28.6 million, bringing the total for the system to $65.4 million.

The cost share for each urban homeowner could total $32,000 (including $19,500 for collection, and $12,500 for the plant). The cost of the collection system would only be about $5,700 per lot for future subdivisions, with the same $12,500 for treatment, bringing that total to $18,200.

These costs, plus interest, would be spread over 10 to 20 years, as a separate charge either on the tax bill, or more likely on the water bill. The system would be built in phases, and property owners would not be charged until they actually have sewer service.

Pearson said there is a good chance of federal and provincial grants to reduce the cost to home and business owners by as much as two-thirds. He said the Town could only borrow up to $14 million towards the project. Additional revenue would come from development.

"There are two things going for us," he said. "We have this old aging infrastructure of septics. And we've got growth, and governments like growth because growth is jobs. You've got a case, and the SSMP is your case to carry forward and try to get a grant. I don't think you're going to build this on your own."

Some of the 150 in attendance at the Centre 2000 meeting were skeptical about the plan, or openly hostile.

"A lot of people live here for the size of it, for the quaintness of it," said Matthew Sammut. "Growth is a reality of the GTA area and we have to accept it, but at a manageable level. Is it reasonable to double our town in a relatively short period of time?"

"We already have debt in this town. My tax bills are pretty darn high. I've compared it to other communities in our region, and we are 20-40% higher than most areas. Our costs are not going to go down with this, and over time will drive residents out of Erin – simple," he said, to a round of applause.

"I think that's irresponsible. I'm not counting on grants. Our governments are broke, and they may come through – they may make themselves broker," he said, arguing that even if the bill for homeowners was reduced to $20,000 or $10,000, it would still be "not acceptable".

Pearson noted that virtually none of the aging septic systems in the urban zones are being replaced, as people await the outcome of this process. Replacement can cost $20,000, and possibly much more for small lots.

Sammut also said it would be "inexcusable" to build a sewage treatment plant in a location that could hurt existing residents through "lifestyle or financial impact."

County Councillor Ken Chapman said growth is essential for the quality of life in Erin. "If we do not grow, we will lose the high school," he said.

"Everybody bitches about how high their taxes are, and ours are the same, but if we can get some business into town, that will drop the tax rate down," said Shelley Foord, Chair of the Business Improvement Area, and a member of the SSMP Liaison Committee and Transition Erin. "We need to look at some option, because they're just going to keep going up."

"Is business actually going to come?" said Andrew Gorsky. He lives close to the possible treatment site near Tenth Line and County Road 52, and believes a plant would "massacre house pricing".

"We don't have close proximity to 400 series highways. Looking at knowledge base (software) we don't have the infrastructure. Who's going to want to come here to build an infrastructure? Are we actually going to get any business out of this, other than just homes?"

Pearson said the annual sewage bill for homeowners could be $450-500, as a rough estimate, but it could be higher depending on how much revenue needs to be generated for future replacement of part of the system.

There would be additional costs, including a fee to hook up, the cost of laying pipe from the house to the road, and the cost of ripping out or decommissioning the old septic system.

The SSMP has concluded that a gravity-based system could be built, with no pumping stations in Hillsburgh and a big pipe to Erin village along the Elora-Cataract Trail. Two pumping stations would be needed in Erin, and about 10% of properties would need individual sewage pumps to move their waste from low elevations up to the main sewer line.

To finish off the SSMP, the Ministry of the Environment MOE and Credit Valley Conservation will review the Assimilative Capacity Study, which measures the ability of the West Credit River to tolerate effluent from a treatment plant using current technology.

They will set a long-term population limit for the combined Hillsburgh-Erin village urban areas, possibly in the 9,000 to 13,000 range – though at the high end, nitrate and phosphorus contamination are above MOE limits.

"The river is telling us, through this chemistry, what it can accept," said Pearson.

The final draft report will be reviewed with the liaison committee, and the core management team (which includes representatives of the Town, MOE, CVC, Wellington County, Peel Region, Ministry of Natural Resources and Triton Engineering), and council will make comments on it. The report will be finalized, the public will have a period of time to make comments, then council will vote on revising or approving the plan. This could take two months, said Pearson.

The SSMP study has covered the first two phases of the full environment assessment that would be required for a sewer system. Town council will have to decide whether to proceed with the next phases.