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Shirley Select Board signs sewer agreement with Lancaster

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SHIRLEY – The memorandum of understanding that Sewer Commissioner Robert Schuler brought to the selectmen at their April 26 meeting – proposing to begin talks with Lancaster about a possible sewer hookup – came up again when the board met Monday night, with a different outcome: it was approved unanimously.

The MOU, step one in a process aimed at inking an Inter-Municipal Agreement with the town of Lancaster, was presented without much explanation last time, lacking background information that board members Debra Flagg and Chairman Andree Jean Jacques said they were looking for. The board did not sign it but agreed to take the matter up at the next meeting on Monday night.

A third board member, Bryan Sawyer, did not share their doubts. As liaison to the Sewer Commission subcommittee looking into the proposal, he was in on previous talks with Lancaster and knew more about the how’s and why’s of the MOU and the situation in Lancaster that prompted it. Basically, it calls for extending Shirley sewer lines into North Lancaster, in part to service planned commercial development.

As Sawyer explained, the emphasis would be on this side of the town line as talks progressed with Lancaster. Absent a clear benefit to Shirley rate-payers, “there’s no reason to do it,” he said.

He said that once an IMA is drafted, it would have to pass muster with the board prior to presenting the document to voters at town meeting. Townspeople would get the final say, Sawyer said. But his colleagues said they wanted more information.

This time, apparently, they got it.

At the previous meeting, Schuler had characterized endorsing the MOU as a “neighborly” thing to do and recommended that the board sign it. “It would allow us to negotiate” with the other town, he said, adding that Lancaster had initiated the outreach. “They came to us,” he said.

Asked about a water supply, which presumably would be sought in tandem with the sewer system hookup and for which Lancaster might turn to the Shirley Water District, Schuler declined to address that issue. “I’m not here to talk about water,” he said. “If you don’t want this, don’t sign it.”

At the recent session, Lancaster Town Administrator Orlando Pacheco offered some insight into the proposal that prompted the other town to seek help from Shirley and led to the MOU, which Lancaster selectmen had already signed.

“The Shirley Water Dept. is North Lancaster’s supplier, but we have not been able to get any new connections,” he said.

Long-term, if water becomes an issue, installing a new well is an option, he said, adding that the Shirley Water District might be considering doing so in the future, on Lancaster land.

For now, the issue is sewer capacity, which Shirley has available and Lancaster needs more of. A study, which the other town paid for, has shown that the system can handle an added 40,000 gallons per day, with usage limited to off-peak hours.

Former selectman Enrico Cappucci has been leery of providing sewer service – and potentially water, as well – to another town before making sure Shirley has enough water and that sewer service can be extended to more neighborhoods in town. He had questions for Pacheco and called for more clarity before the MOU is signed. “You’re marrying two entities that may not be compatible,” he said.

“True, the developer might prefer a water supply from Shirley… but there’s water available at the site,” Pacheco responded. In terms of who benefits, he sees it as a win/win. “We’re not the problem, we’re part of the solution,” he said.

As for where things go from here, Town Administrator Mike McGovern later said he assumed discussions would go on “back and forth” between Shirley and Lancaster negotiating groups, as they had prior to forming a regional dispatch service with Ayer. “Ultimately, the Select Board will review the IMA, with input from town officials on both sides and Shirley DPW director Brandon Kelly, who has experience with matters like this.”

Flagg and Jean Jacques, however, also wanted to ensure that McGovern would be part of the talks.

Before discussion concluded, the chairman spoke out about what went on last time, in her estimation, with Schuler more than once claiming that he could not understand while Jean Jacques was speaking. “The commissioner did not treat me well,” she said. “The way he talked to me was unacceptable.”

“I understand that I have an accent,” said Jean Jacques, who is of Haitian descent. But “not that bad” that he could not understand. “He wanted to dismiss me,” she said.

Schuler said his apparent irritation during the MOU discussion at the April 25 meeting was directed at what seemed like a last-minute detour in a two-year process that had been moving forward to date. In his view, he’d been blindsided, and that was what his comments about not understanding were about. “It was the way they treated the process,” he said.

Schuler sketched the process he referred to, which began when Lancaster officials reached out to the Shirley Sewer Commission about a potential hookup, motivated by industrial development in North Lancaster. Talks led to an engineering study determining “how much flow we could receive from them,” he said.

The conclusion was none, during the day. After-hours, however, they could take in a certain amount, without compromising the Shirley system or shortchanging its users. In fact, it could mean lower costs for rate-payers, Schuler said. The MOU was drawn up, passed by the Select Board and reviewed by town counsel, he said. Then, at its previous meeting, the board balked. “I think they pulled the plug for political reasons…” perhaps related to water, he said. In any case, any issues can be addressed during negotiations, he added.