The Town Center Planning Committee (TCPC) has come to realize that the Town Center we all know and love is at imminent risk. It is at risk of undesirable changes and consequences imposed by regulations, or the absence thereof, not encountered by earlier residents.
Nevertheless, some people are asking: Why is the TCPC proposing a center sewer system in these tight financial times? And, why should any out-of-center properties contribute anything to it? These are valid questions and we want the townspeople to understand the risks and our reasons for proposing a solution to those risks.
First, there is a long history (at least 30 years, according to one longtime resident) of concern over center septic problems. There have been numerous studies commissioned and groups formed over many years to look into the issue. Every one of them has detailed basically the same problems and agreed that something should be done. But none of those studies formally proposed any concrete long-term solutions, and their sometimes costly reports were consigned to the proverbial “let’s duck the issue shelf.”
Second, why now? Because the risks are no longer just future possibilities. They are real, and they are here and now. The reality of inadequate wastewater disposal will not get better on its own. It won’t go away, and it can only continue to deteriorate. And solutions to this problem will not get any cheaper by waiting for that pie-in-the-sky day in the future when we’ll no longer have a crisis-free budget of financial triage.
Furthermore, the school leach field on Mass. Ave. will not handle the requirements of a full build out system, so complete success of this project depends upon the purchase of a piece of abutting land for additional leaching capacity. The window is rapidly closing on this opportunity. The chance to purchase this land will not wait for our indecision and timidity. If we don’t act upon this once-in-a-lifetime, least-cost opportunity now, costs for the project will most certainly escalate.
Here are the risks we’ve identified so far: (Note that nine of the 13 risks are only associated with town owned municipal facilities and/or opportunities, not privately owned center properties. Three more are associated with both public and private facilities. This leaves just one risk/benefit tied exclusively to private property owners in the center.)
* The Town Beach septic system is in failure. We don’t believe that Porta Potties are a desirable or even acceptable alternative to having no bathroom facilities for beach-goers. We see no way of avoiding one or the other of these unattractive scenarios except with a public sewer line to prevent closure of the Beach House bathrooms.
* The Pond Committee warns that the water quality of Bare Hill Pond is effected in part by the proximity of antiquated septic systems close to the pond. Connecting some of those properties to a municipal system would eliminate some of that risk.
* The town wells supplying drinking water to the schools, as well as to all our public buildings, have a number of private septic systems lying within the public drinking water well protection zones established by the DEP. A sewer system would eliminate this threat.
* The long sought after Elderly Housing for Town Center is virtually impossible without access to a municipal sewer.
* The Bromfield House has a septic system of unknown location and condition. Expanded use or potential sale of this facility will require either a new Title 5 compliant (and expensive) system, or connection to a public sewer system.
* The current library building, which sits on just 0.17 acres and whose septic system is permitted for just 80 gallons per day (five employees), will almost certainly face either closure or an uneconomic reduction in use once it is vacated in favor of the new library facility, which is without a public sewer connection. If vacant, the building will still cost money to maintain, protect and insure.
* It is certainly no secret that the school/new library sewage treatment plant, while currently meeting its operating requirements, is struggling to do so and operating with less efficiency and higher cost than planned. Both the DEP and the operating engineers have told us that the plant would benefit, in terms of operating cost and efficiency, from the introduction of year-round residential type sewage input.
* Current deed restrictions limiting the number of bedrooms are reducing property sale (and tax) values. A sewer system could remove those restrictions, increase property values and generate increased property tax revenues received by the town. A center with boarded up and vacant buildings will almost certainly cause local property values to decline, and any lost tax revenues from this reduction in assessed value will have to be made up by all of Harvard’s taxpayers.
* There seems to be no possibility of creating any public restroom facilities in the center without a sewer system. As long as the Town Hall/Town Vault septic permit contains a deed restriction for a maximum of 18 employees, it cannot accommodate public restrooms.
* The General Store (sitting on just 0.07 acres), a popular center gathering place and focal point, is now for sale, yet its septic system sits on an adjacent parcel owned by the town. A sewer connection for it, and the adjacent church, would increase the viability options for that property, would allow the church to pursue its desired expansion plans and generate additional tax revenues proportional to its increase in assessed value. Furthermore, these sewer connections would release the vacant lot for other options.
* A municipal sewer system would allow and encourage (within appropriate zoning) the expanded use of existing, under-utilized center properties. It would enable properties to be expanded or converted to meet a range of affordable and rental housing needs.
Any proposal for constructing some limited portion of the system as proposed, while first appears to be a cheaper alternative, must be evaluated by looking at the longer term “costs of doing nothing” to address the excluded risks.
Finally, although a central public sewer system could accommodate all sorts of expanded and intensified uses in the center, the TCPC is not promoting a plan that would allow inappropriate growth in the center. Local zoning regulations enacted by the town meeting, are the determining factor of what can be built and what uses will be permitted in Town Center.
The town, through revised zoning regulations, is in complete control of all future development scenarios. Therefore, concerns about inappropriate or out of control development facilitated by a public sewer system should never obviate the need for the sewer system.
Member, Town Center Planning Committee