HARVARD — A recently appointed committee wants to begin construction on a town center sewer district within the next 12 months, but that timeline is expected to hinge on securing state assistance.
The project has an estimated price tag of $2 million and local officials plan to finance that through the State Revolving Fund, a Department of Environmental Protection program that offers low-interest loans for water and wastewater upgrades.
A successful SRF application would allow Harvard to borrow at 2 percent interest for the project, but the program is essentially a competitive grant, and it’s expected the town would need to wait until next year if this application isn’t approved.
“Right now, everything is predicated on getting the SRF funding,” said Town Administrator Timothy Bragan.
The application is being prepared by the Town Center Sewer Building Committee, which has been charged with implementing the district, but is also operating under some selectboard-inserted “circuit breakers” that are intended to ensure things remain affordable, said committee Chairman Christopher Ashley.
Specially, Ashley said the project needs to secure low-interest financing, and the total project cost can’t increase by more than 15 percent before construction begins. If either happened, the project would need further Town Meeting approval.
While it remains to be seen if construction costs fluctuate that much in coming months, Ashley said they expect know about the low-interest financing within 90 days of the application being filed later this month.
“We should know where we stand with that by the end of the year,” he said.
Asked about the possibility of Harvard securing the SRF financing, town finance director Lorraine Leonard was extremely optimistic, saying that the program was undersubscribed last year and that a number of communities are holding-off on big capital projects because of the economy.
“It’s no guarantee, but we feel those two factors are very much in our favor,” she said. “We feel very confident that we’ll get it.”
Creation of a sewer district was approved by town meeting voters in May, and the Board of Selectmen began appointing members to the building committee shortly after.
Officially, the group has been charged with overseeing all aspects of the project through the construction phase, which is expected to result in a wastewater collection system that would roughly correspond with the town water district and would tie-in with the wastewater processing facility at the schools.
Asked about how the work is going, Ashley said things remain in the early stages, noting that a fourth member of the group was appointed last week and that they’re still seeking a fifth and final appointee. However, he added that things are still on the original timetable, saying he’s optimistic that trend could continue throughout the process.
“I’d hate to assign a probability to it, I don’t see any reason we can’t,” he said. “But with any kind of project, until you’ve gone through his work and done the steps, it’s hard to say where the thing could get tripped up.”
One potential stumbling block for the project would be if there’s pervasive ledge within the district, which could drive up digging costs considerably. It’s uncertain at this point if that will be the case, said Tim Clark, who is the selectboard’s liaison to the building committee. He added that preliminary tests have been conducted and the town should receive that report shortly.
There may be political considerations as well, given that the district would need legislative approval of a home- rule petition to be established.
If approved, the petition would exempt the district from state law that requires all homes within sewer districts to connect; instead, that would only be required for new or expanded structures, or ones that are undergoing a change of use.
Ashley said the petition also includes a growth-neutral clause, which would require that all new construction demonstrate it could meet the state requirements without using the district and it would also allow the town to offer lower-than-usual interest rates on betterment paybacks.
Having spoken with members of the town’s delegation on that topic, Clark told the Board of Selectmen in August that they aware of the town’s hope to move forward and the petition is expected to be taken up before the current session adjourns.
Asked about the petition’s prospects, Bragan thought it was likely to be approved, citing strong local support for the project.
“It overwhelmingly passed the Town Meeting and the ballot, so I don’t think there will be any problem,” he said.
The prospect of a town center sewer district has been a recurring discussion item in recent years, primarily because of the small lots sizes and poor soil in the village area, which often makes it difficult for tenants of the town center to maintain compliant septic systems.
Selectman Clark has been a key advocate on that issue for the better part of the last decade, having worked through the Town Center Planning Committee to flesh out the idea and point out that the lack of sewer means limited usage options for buildings like the old library and general store.
Ashley traced his involvement with this issue back to the 2008 Town Meeting, when voters passed on a proposal to create an action group for the project and instead asked for an exploratory committee to provide more information. Having subsequently served on that group, Ashley said he became convinced the district was the best answer for sewer-related problems in the town center, adding that he joined the building committee to help provide some continuity between the two groups.
“I was frankly skeptical about the creation of a district,” he said. “But as we went through and did the work, it made more sense.”