Portsmouth hammers wastewater plan

Citizens carry signs at wastewater hearing

More than 250 residents packed the Portsmouth Middle School auditorium this evening for a public hearing on the draft wastewater facilities plan prepared by Woodard & Curran, and based on the 20 citizens who spoke and the response in the room, public sentiment against the proposal was overwhelming.

There was a brief review of the $170M draft plan proposal for two sewage treatment plants on the West and North side (available on the Town's Wastewater page) then the rest of the 2.5 hour meeting was turned over to public comment.

"What happens if you don't pass the bond issue," Island Park resident Bob Drake wanted to know, saying that he felt like Island Park would then be a "target."

Island Park resident Gary Gump suggested that the Council let the matter go to the citizens for a vote. He noted that there were some lots that would be difficult for septic systems and said that personally, he would "like to have a sewer system." This drew loud boos from the crowd, prompting Council President Pete McIntyre to say, "Would you do that in your own living room if you had a guest?"

Portsmouth Concerned Citizens (PCC) President Larry Fitzmorris called it "the most unrealistic project I've seen in the history of this town," and that his estimate, including financing, was $230M, which he said was "brutally expensive."

This reporter, for possibly the first time in public, agreed with Mr. Fitzmorris about the cost. But I added that even the proposed Wastewater Management District (WWMD) would be very expensive for people on fixed incomes, since it would require $25K outlays for replacing septic systems. I suggested that the Council consider tax relief for residents of Island Park who were replacing their systems since we would be, in effect, contributing to the public good of clean water and the Town should offset that expense on our taxes.

Former Town Councilor Len Katzman asked "What does it mean to be too expensive," and cited a handbook used by the Federal EPA in evaluating projects, which uses the figure of 2% of median household income as the threshold, beyond which the price is an "unreasonable financial burden." Given Newport County's median income of $68K (which, Katzman said, the North End of Portsmouth probably does not approach) that would put the limit of acceptable yearly cost at $1,375. Given those numbers, said Katzman, "You don't have to guess, is this too much or not too much — this is too much."

Kathy Melvin argued that the PCC's cadre of "volunteer scientists" (Ed. Note: I need to remember that term the next time one of these folks tells me there are no citizen journalists) had not seen evidence of pollution, and slammed the proposal as a giveaway to developers. Portsmouth, she said, should not be "an economic development zone for developers with the taxpayers footing the bill."

Former Councilor Bill West asked the Council to be sure they knew what would happen to the townspeople if the proposal did not pass. "What will the DEM (Department of Environmental Management) do if we reject?" said West, "What are the ramifications?"

There were also questions about the feasibility of the projected development required to get the finances to work, based on Aquidneck Island's limited supply of water. And one person raised my favorite solution: hand the whole thing over to the Portsmouth Water and Fire District, since they already have expertise in piping and digging up streets, and they are a completely separate financial entity.

The Council took no formal action this evening, since this was advertised as a hearing, but placed the item on the agenda for their first meeting in January. There was a brief procedural scuffle when Tailgunner Gleason tried to move it up to the December 14 meeting "So that these people can have a good Christmas," but that was nixed by the reality that Woodard and Curran could not return the final proposal with the public comments integrated in that timeframe.

After the meeting, one of the people involved in the process gave me a link to a recent New York Times story on Newport's sewer problems, which is worth taking a look at. While it's not on point — it focusses on the issues of legacy systems combining stormwater and wastewater — it is an acute reminder that this is an Island-wide issue.

As a resident of Island Park, and someone who will be affected personally by any decision, my goal has always been to ensure clean water for our Town and the next generation. I really wish that the numbers had been there for some type of common system that would have solved the specific issues for Island Park residents, since we are going to lose large portions of our property and personally have to pay significant upgrade costs for advanced septic systems. My house is valued at $180K, so a $25K septic system is a significant fraction of the cost. There are a lot of folks here in the Park in similar situations.

If sewers are not politically possible, then we need to find the next best solution and implement it in a way that minimizes negative consequences, and that looks like it would be a WWMD. What I do not want to have happen is what many of the anti-sewer folks used as an argument against sewers: people on fixed incomes will be priced out of their homes.

That's why I'm urging the Council to consider tax relief for Island Park and Portsmouth Park residents who are required under the WWMD to replace their septic systems. Since we are contributing to the public good of clean water, we should see a reduction in our taxes. My back-of-envelope calculation is that in a worst-case year, this would likely cost the town $600K in foregone taxes from IP/PP, which would mean spreading this around the rest of the town. The average $300K house would see a total increase of $50 in their yearly taxes.

Is fifty bucks a year too much for the town to have clean water and keep people in their homes?

Wastewater page on Portsmouth Town site
New York Times video on Newport sewer issues


Excellent reporting, thank you!
While I too have lamented for the need to ensure potable and safe drinking water, and mitigate the risks to our marine life, the cost for unfunded mandates should be born by our federal government.
We did not approve the unfunded mandate for the cost of two wars and with Portsmouth's contribution to date of approximately $83-86 million since 2001; we should be compensated for those costs to meet the EPA/DEM requirements (I know, Congress does not work that way).
While I agree with every one of the statements reported out, we need to have our TC members to alert us much earlier before contracts are let for proposals that have the potential to significantly affect our community members and quality of life.
While I was sad to see the sewage bond defeated, I also agree that the cost estimates are low-balling the solutions offered in Alternative 4 (in the proposal). Also, the cash flow model makes assumptions that seem optimistic and inject risks that have not been addressed. Without the availability of a cost-benefit analysis for the public good, or competitive proposals that leverages economy of scale for the whole island, as well as alternatives of lost opportunity cost models of doing nothing, I have come to doubt the strategy for our island’s development plans. After reading about the Westside Master Plan, affordable housing requirements, and the thrust to convert federal and state-owned lands into mixed development projects, I am somewhat relieved that the current economic crisis will give our island reprieve from the frenzied obsession for more development. We need a moratorium on further growth and revisit our zoning status for benchmarking and ecological imapct analysis .
Once sewer plants are in place and based on the affordability housing plans it seems that the Common Fence people are at greatest risk to have their properties acquired for the purposes of increasing residence density seen as a "density bonus" in accordance with (IAW) the "...state guidelines for affordable housing plans, land management density strategies..." (Source: "LOW AND MODERATE INCOME HOUSING PLAN, 2005-06-13-A" dated December 1, 2004, and revised June 13, 2005).
Therefore, I do not blame Common Fence folks to be especially wary of the impending uncertainty proposed by our town fathers and mothers.
I keep wondering how do we always get this far? Whether it is the "TARGET", "No bird feed on the grounds of backyards", or "wastewater management" all seem to require hearings by our Town Council. I thought we just had an election to change the mix of our TC membership with the assumption that these officials would be more sensitive to community wishes and desires, in other words, an "activist" management approach.
Oh well, there is always another election on the horizon and if we stall long enough, the rising sea levels will make the latest proposal OBE (overtaken by events).


John I just want you to know that it really saddens me that we live in an age where the contentiousness of every issue reaches, it seems, ever higher proportions. Many people like you, living in IP, may find themselves confronting expenses that they may or may not be able to afford. In a perfect world, the entire community would view this as a problem. Unfortunately, it seems we’re in an “every man for himself” kind of time. Even your next door neighbor, if you had one who just recently put a lot of money into a repaired or new septic system, might not care about your particular plight.

We also live in a time when bold or future-looking plans may not be implemented until the crap hits the fan. For example: the state legislature may not do anything about our untenable public-employee retirement “system” until the state confronts the real potential of actual bankruptcy. A few years ago people might have though that such a prospect was not realistically on the horizon. Today, unfortunately, I can just say: Look at California.

Of note with regard to waste water and IP: Just yesterday a federal court judge ORDERED the town of Gloucester, MA to incur immense costs as a result of their negligence in the monitoring and maintainance of their drinking water facilities. (See below). Is it not so far fetched to imagine that if we drag our feet long enough some judge is going to order some or all of the people of Portsmouth to do something about certain aspects of our waste water management. Here is a new article about the recent ruling effecting Gloucester:

"Gloucester fined for water violations. DEP orders city to make upgrades." By Brian Benson Globe Correspondent / December 4, 2009

The state Department of Environmental Protection fined the City of Gloucester more than $82,000 for violations of Massachusetts drinking water guidelines stemming from operational and oversight issues that led to a 20-day boil-water ordinance last August.

About $67,000 of the fine will be suspended IF the city makes improvements, including $8 million in upgrades to equipment at its Babson water treatment facility, according to a consent order issued this week. “My number one priority for the city is to fix those parts of the infrastructure that need fixing,’’ said Mayor Carolyn Kirk of Gloucester, adding that the City Council is scheduled to vote on a $6 million funding request at its Dec. 15 meeting.

[Ed. Note: Rest of post removed. Please read the story at Boston.com.]

Hi, Viking...
I have edited your previous post to link to, rather than including, the text of the Boston Globe article. Sorry about this, but I know that newspapers are understandably a bit touchy these days about seeing their content replicated on other sites. I hope you can understand.


I understand completely. Other than the link issue, I hope you appreciate my remarks & my comparison of our woes to those of Gloucester.

Is what you seem to be asking for in your comment.

Maybe I have some of my assumptions wrong? I don't keep up with these things...

However, these things seem suspect to me:
1. Your house valued at 180K
Does that mean your house would only sell for that if placed on the market (comparables), or is that what you are taxed on? If the later, it might mean you are getting a heck of a deal, and hardly means that your load is higher - in fact it is LOWER...now and later!
2. The public good of clean water.
Again, from the outside, this seems similar to if I placed a tent next to the water, dug a couple outhouses, used them, polluted the water and shore...and then asked others for money because I would do them a favor by installing a fully sewered bathroom.
3. Average 300K house
I assume these are the average houses elsewhere in Portsmouth where people have paid the REAL PRICE up front of having a decent septic system?

I don't expect you to agree...but think about it! If I buy a house which costs less, partially because it is not up to modern standards (in MANY ways), I don't have the right to ask others to help me to remodel and improve it.

I support clean water and am certainly willing to pay for it......but I think, to be fair, you must remove yourself from the affected and look at this "from the center".

"you can never explain everything to everybody"

Hi, Craigi...
This is not an attempt to redistribute income; this is a tax exemption policy in service of a clear social good: keeping people in their homes. Portsmouth already does this for senior citizens on fixed incomes.

I do not want the town's likely decision not to provide a municipal solution for wastewater to drive seniors out of their houses and allow the Park to be snapped up by developers who can afford to put in condos with new septic. What's your proposal to achieve this objective?

Best Regards.

I would actually look twice at the objective!

Keeping people in their homes by paying for their upgrades to modern standards does not ,IMHO, rate as high as keeping the chit out of the water which ALL people (homeowners or not) share.

These issues are always contentious. Money into one pocket is always out of another. Of course, I would support more general subsidies from the state and feds! That is also redistribution, but it is less from each of us.

There are also, I assume, legalities involved with such tax treatment.

In a more general sense, older people (or any people, for that matter) have many resources for their financial security such as - themselves, their families, the existing programs, medicare, etc.......and, in a case like this - even reverse mortgages!

A reverse mortgage would allow the full use of their house, no additional payments, etc. with the ONLY caveat that they actually pay at SOME POINT for the upgrades received. In fact, these improvements are very likely to increase property values by a lot. The fact that water in the upper river there is dirty certainly would seem to lower the property values and resale prices!

So, put in that way, there would be very little down side.

Also, you have to qualify such statements as "keeping people in their homes". Is it clearly documented that there are "x" number of people with no resources (not just income!)? Having a tax exemption based on 15 cases (example) would seem foolish.

In other words, you have to separate out the real need - from the want. Everyone wants a break....only a few actually may deserve it!