Portsmouth EDC chair clarifies sewer economics presentation to Town Council

Portsmouth EDC Chair Rich Talipsky issued a statement today clarifying the context around the presentation on the economic impact of sewers in Island Park that was featured at last night's Town Council meeting. The PEDC’s full presentation is posted on their web site, and also attached below. Talipsky said:

The PEDC in "approving" this presentation to the Town Council has not "endorsed" the concept of sewers. Our reason for the presentation is to present an economic aspect of a sewer plan (with some hypothetical, but realistic scenarios) to create a construct for further study of the issue to ensure all the hearsay and innuendo surrounding this issue is properly analyzed and documented, Per the first and last slides in the presentation:

First Slide states:

  • In our opinion the current public debate of the waste water issue affecting the Island Park/Portsmouth Park area is lacking in consideration of some very important financial realities and potentially powerful economic alternatives.
  • We are here this evening to engage in this discussion.
  • We understand that what we present here will have to be fully studied from a non-economic view and will require the review and concurrence of several other town bodies. But, we felt it critically important to address it to you, the Town Council, at this point.

On the last slide we asked that:

  • The Town Council direct the Town Administrator to assemble and lead a team to analyze and report to the Council on the competing economic outcomes and risks for the town and all property owners of Waste Water Management vs. Sewers in the Island Park/Portsmouth area, including

    • The results of substantive discussions on the development of relevant property & participation in a sewer system (in particular the Cardi property).
    • The fiscal impacts and risks to the town.
    • The economic impacts to the citizens of Portsmouth in costs, property valuations, property liquidity and risk.

Large potential development concepts (such as the Cardi scenario used in our presentation) have potential significant impact on the Town and must involve the Town Council, at least for information, in their beginning concept stages. This was part of our reason for presenting it to the Town Council early without a rigorous analysis. It is meant to start a dialogue to engage all the potential stakeholders and eliminate the multiplicity of hearsay and undocumented historical information that has not been formally discussed or has not been discussed in a consolidated forum.

We understand that there may be flaws in our analysis and we welcome any and all comments in a structured process that will result in a compendium of factual data on the issue for future reference.

The PEDC understands that it is not in our charter to examine the non-economic aspects of this issue.

However, we felt it important to provide an economic brief on which to start a comprehensive discussion of an important issue, and ensure that the citizens of Portsmouth are part of an informed decision process, of what may happen to a large Heavy Industrial Zoned parcel in the future

Editorial note: Written from a press release.

Localblogging, 02871, Wastewater, PEDC, sewers

New sewer fearmongering and misinformation in Island Park [update 7/11]

Stuck on the mailbox
They're Baaaaack...

Sometime after 9am this morning, fliers with misinformation about wastewater were illegally placed on mailboxes in the Island Park section of Portsmouth. There is no identification — whoever put these out is obviously too cowardly to identify themselves — but these are three-color printing, clearly not something slapped together.

The "facts" on the other hand...

Sewer disinformation
Click image for PDF

The flier (you can click the image to open a PDF version) tries to scare residents by saying that "918 families in jeopardy of losing their homes" and calling the Lombardo report a "sewer solution" that will cost "$60-80 million." It urges residents to call the "four members of the Voting Block [sic]" comprising Jim Seveney, Mike Buddemeyer, Joe Robicheau, and Keith Hamiltion.

And who's behind this nefarious scheme? "Real Estate Developers want Island Park and Portsmouth Park properties at bargain prices with sewers."

Let's just recap: The work Lombardo is doing is all that stands between Portsmouth and a DEM order FORCING us to sewer, and the approach is to seek all possible variances from DEM to allow individual homeowners to maintain individual septic systems, and only where this is technically impossible due to lot size, to identify alternatives.

Here's the nut graf from the Town web site: "Areas found to be unsuitable for on-site disposal are studied further to determine the optimum method of off-site disposal suitable for the area (generally a cluster system or innovative collective system, or a combination thereof)." You can read all about it on the Portsmouth Wastewater site.

No matter how many times Tailgunner and company stand up at the Council and call this "sewers," that's just not what it is. There are homes in Island Park with lots too small for even a high-tech onsite system. I've been to the Town Planner's office and looked at the map. Even assuming that we can negotiate with DEM to relax their setbacks (distance from basement, property line, etc.) there are still about 70 homeowners who would need some type of combined, off-site system.

Lombardo is the engineer who has been trying to develop these alternatives and defend us from DEM. And the namesless forces of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt want you to lobby the Council to terminate this effort?

Whose side are they on?

Update: On Monday morning, I turned over my copy to the Portsmouth Postmaster, who confirmed that this use of mailboxes is a violation and promised to try to find out who was responsible.

Localblogging, Wastewater, 02817, sewers

Portsmouth Patch breaks wastewater plan

Yesterday afternoon, Portsmouth Patch posted the wastewater management plan developed by consultant Lombardo Associates.

Even if you've been following the back-and-forth at the Town Council, there's a few new things here. There's a lot more detail about how Lombardo will execute the process over the next few months. And, perhaps most importantly, the document seems to present a clear defense against the RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM) "Notice of Violation" by demonstrating the feasibility of an alternative approach to meeting their mandated goals. Nut graf:

"The Town of Portsmouth respectfully requests RIDEM to allow the Town to implement its preferred approach to addressing the wastewater and stormwater issues that are the cause of water quality violations with the aggressive, comprehensive approach as described herein. The Town is of the opinion that this approach will be a win-win for all stakeholders."

Full disclosure: I live in the affected area of Island Park.

Program note: While it might appear that I'm sending people to my "competition" by linking to Portsmouth.Patch, I don't see it that way. The idea of competition is based on a concept of scarcity deeply rooted in the economics of the physical world. In the digital, media are decentralized and we inhabit them like an ecosystem. I publish here and push content out to Facebook and Twitter; I depend on serendipitous discovery through Google searches and indexing by Outside.In and Topix; my words exist a click away from everything else written about Portsmouth.

Patch and I both contribute different things to this media environment, and I celebrate what they do. We are two different species, each with our own ecological niche. I read Patch every day, and I hope you will too.

Localblogging, 02871, Wastewater, IP

DEM to Portsmouth: It rolls downhill...

RI DEM explains cesspool phaseout

The RI Dept. of Environmental Management (DEM) is in the process of finalizing rules related to the state's cesspool phaseout law, and they held an information session for the East Bay at the Portsmouth Town Hall last night. About 50 people — many from areas of town likely to be affected — showed up to ask hear details and ask questions.

I pretty much knew what to expect when a member of the RI Tea Party handed me a flier outside the front door. While the topic was not sewers, there was a lot of anger in many of the questions from those in attendance. And one can hardly blame them. For those with cesspools who live near the shore, the news is not good, and if you live in the northeast end of town, it's even worse.

The DEM presenters included Russ Chateauneuf, chief of groundwater and wetlands protection, Jon Zwarg, a senior planner, and Brian Moore, a permitting supervisor. Also on hand from the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) was senior policy analyst Jim Boyd.

Zwarg laid out some of the basic facts. Cesspools are simple buried chambers from which wastewater seeps, untreated, into the surrounding soil, and have not been permitted in Rhode Island since 1968. The general assembly, in 2007, passed the Cesspool Phaseout Act requiring replacement of all cesspools withing 200 feet of "coastal shoreline features," public drinking water wells, and surface drinking water reservoirs.

The Act does not constitute a state-wide ban, Zwarg noted, and does not affect all of the state's 25,000 estimated cesspools. Only those in specified areas need to be inspected by Jan 1, 2012 and replaced by Jan 1, 2013 with a system that meets code. Inspections, which DEM expects to cost between $75-$250, can be done by anyone on DEM's list of approved "system inspectors" who have had appropriate training or who hold an ISDS designer's license.

Failed cesspools, however, need to be replaced earlier, and Zwarg ticked off what constitutes failure: not accepting wastewater, liquid level less than 6 inches from inlet, requiring pumpout more than twice a year, shown to contaminate any body of water, or a bottom below the groundwater level at any time of the year.

DEM could not predict if, or when, such a ban might extend beyond shoreline areas to the rest of the state, nor which part of the state might be targeted for enforcement first. "Enforcement" in this case being a letter to a suspected cesspool owner requiring a response within 6 months.

And it turns out that identifying cesspools is a non-trivial task, as the CRMC's Boyd explained. Because there are no detailed records of all properties that upgraded, the task required mapping and inference. The CRMC used aerial photos of "coastal shoreline features" (clearly, their term of art) combined with latitude and longitude information from the state's E911 database of street addresses to create overlay maps, and ultimately determined that there are approximately 4,000 cesspools in RI's coastal zone.

The cost to replace a cesspool, Chateauneuf said, depended entirely on the site. While some lots might be suitable for a conventional tank and leach field in the $10-$15K range, those with smaller properties or unsuitable drainage might require Advanced/Experimental (A/E) systems, like the "bottomless sand filter" which cost substantially more. There are loans available through the state's Septic System Loan Program (SSLP) to assist homeowners, however, to qualify for these 2%, 10-year loans, the town must have an approved wastewater management plan.

Which, uh, Portsmouth does not. And which folks in Island Park, Portsmouth Park, and Common Fence Point may not be able to qualify for.

"In areas where the facilities plans have indicated that sewering is the option, I can't tell you whether SSLP loan money would be available," said Chateauneuf.

One Portsmouth resident asked point-blank. "Has DEM communicated to the town what needs to be done for the town to get these loans? We have people who need to do upgrades and are spending money right now."

"I am not familiar with all the dialog between town and DEM about sewering and onsite management planning," said Chateauneuf. "There's an issue with the department funding and approving loan money in areas that a facilities plan indicate needs to be sewered; that may be a stumbling block. This is not a final decision of agency tonight," he said, but added, "Some areas of town will be available, some areas will not be."

That's when the questioning began to turn nasty. "Some areas are going to be punished because they didn't go along with DEM plan?" asked one resident.

"I wouldn't say punished," said Chateauneuf.

"They're going to pay through the nose," a resident replied. "There are a lot of the people in Island Park and Common Fence Point who are retired, and they don't have the money."

"The facilities planning process has concluded that parts of town require sewers," said Chateauneuf. "It's fair to say that the department feels it inconsistent as a general rule to be funding state monies for onsite improvements when, in fact, sewers are required. That would be an inconsistent use of state money."

Well, it's not good news, that's for sure. I did a quick worksheet, and the difference between an SSLP loan at 2% and a typical home equity at around 6% is going to be roughly $4,000 over the life of the loan assuming a mid-priced system, and would push a homeowner's monthly payment from $184 to $222. That's assuming, of course, you can get a loan on those terms, or get a loan at all, these days.

If DEM decides to send out notices, which they can presumably do as soon as they finalize this rule in June, people within 200 feet of one of those "coastal shoreline features" who fail an inspection could be looking at a $20K nut within six months. The Council has already asked town administration to come back with a wastewater management plan by July, but given the position DEM took last night, that may not make much difference for folks in so-called "need to sewer" areas.

Okay, the Council stood up to DEM, but it looks like my neighbors may end up paying for it.

DEM public notice on Cesspool Phaseout regulations

Full disclosure: I live in Island Park, but fortunately not within 200 feet of any "coastal shoreline feature."

Localblogging, 02871, Wastewater

DEM to air new cesspool rules in Portsmouth tonight

The RI Department of Environmental Management is holding a public workshop on changes to their ISDS standards at the Portsmouth Town Hall tonight at 7pm, according to a posting on the DEM Web site.

Am I the only one for whom this is a surprise? Good communications plan there, folks. And, not to be paranoid, but is the DEM's sudden appearance in Portsmouth just one of those random coincidences?

If you can't make it tonight, there's a public comment period and a hearing date specified in the link above. I downloaded the Draft Rules, and it is 137 pages of strikethroughs and insertions. If you live in Island Park, you'll want to take a peek.

Localblogging, Drupal, Wastewater

Portsmouth council votes "no" to sewers [update]

Council hears resident's questions on wastewater plan.

By unanimous vote tonight, the Portsmouth Town Council decisively rejected sewers, instead directing that the town administration bring back a plan for a wastewater management district [WMD] by July 1. An overflow crowd of at least 150 filled the chambers and lobby, with a handful crouched outside around the windows, straining to hear. There were at least a dozen carrying anti-sewer signs, and there were multiple rounds of applause for those who took to the podium to voice opposition to sewers.

Town Hall was so crowded that I spent the first part of the meeting watching through a window from the parking lot, and only managed to slip into the room after the Council went into executive session with the attorney they had brought in to advise them on compliance with relevant environmental regulations, Christopher D'Ovidio.

From the outset, it was clear that the Council was listening. Councilor Keith Hamilton almost immediately made a motion to direct the town administration to return with a wastewater district plan that would bring the Town into compliance with Department of Environmental Management and EPA regulations, and although there was much agonizing and parsing of every clause in the questions that followed, at the end of the night, it was clear that both the text of the motion and the intent of the Council was aimed at bringing the matter to closure.

"We need to stop driving the nail into the coffin," said councilor Dennis Canario. "Let's start the process."

But it seemed nobody wanted to take the Council at their word. The first question from the audience sought reassurance that "sewers were off the table." Hamilton replied that the motion was to go forward with a WMD. [Editorial note: Normally, following good journalistic practice, I'd identify the speaker, but last night's meeting was a bit loose, with not everyone providing their name and address at the podium, and, frankly, given the crowd noise, I was not always able to hear those who did.]

Larry Fitzmorris, president of the PCC, one of the groups which has opposed sewers, asked for the Council to distribute the motion in writing. "Much pivots on the language," he said. I did see the Council make copies, but none of them made it to the back of the room where I was. "We need to understand that you understand that this is not the back door into sewers," said Fitzmorris.

The council seemed pretty clear in their responses. "We're certainly not here to do that," replied Council president Pete McIntyre. "This is a motion against sewers, as far as I am concerned," said Councilor Jeff Plumb. "I am not and will not support sewers," said Dennis Canario. "There isn't anybody sitting here that's going to back into anything," said Seveney.

And the mistrust was not aimed at the Council alone. Several people asked questions about who would set the standards and who would do the water quality testing to verify that the WMD was working.

"What if someone takes a dump off the side of a boat and says the water's dirty," asked one resident of Common Fence Point. (Bet you don't see THAT quote in the Daily News.)

Then Tailgunner Gleason started offering amendments to the motion. First, she proposed adding "town-wide" to modify WMD. Then she wanted to add language specifically referring to previous reports which provided support for a WMD. Both of those were accepted. Then she tried to add a clause saying that the town would only need to comply with "current" water quality standards, and that's where the the Council called on attorney D'Ovidio.

Adding such a clause, said D'Ovidio, would not immunize the Town from changes in the law. "You have to comply," he said. "You can't go back and say in 2015 that we're in compliance with 2010 regulations."

With everyone satisfied, the Council voted unanimously to proceed with the WMD plan, and about 130 of the attendees left.

The remainder of the meeting was anticlimactic. Gleason's agenda item on the Island Park skate area had been pushed to a future meeting while I was still in the parking lot, and the PCC's proposed charter changes were also moved.

Only other item of interest is that there will be a workshop on May 3 where the Council will discuss the status of the Town Center project.

Localblogging, 02871, Town Council, Wastewater

Portsmouth wastewater coverage

Didn't make the Portsmouth Town Council meeting Monday night where the wastewater report was on the agenda, but the Sakonnet Times has good coverage (worth reading the comments, too) and the meeting even got a writeup in the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition (RISC) newsletter.

Localblogging, 02871, Town Council, Wastewater

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

Localblogging, 02871, Wastewater

Anti-sewer vandals are back

09nov28_takeone.jpgThe lawbreaking vandals who put up their propaganda dispenser on state property have returned to Boyd's Lane, with another round of rabid anti-sewer rhetoric. The flyer — once again, no group has the balls to put their name on it — has a big "Just Say No" and urges citizens to "Let our town council know exactly how you feel about the sewer proposal being forced upon us by Special Interest groups and the DEM. Show up or pay up!!"

Boy, I would really like to know who those initial-cap special interests are.

And being that I live in the affected area, I would like someone to at least, once, mention that if sewers are not installed, local homeowners are going to be personally on the hook for individual septic systems. That's a $20K nut and about half my yard.

But I'll bet the vandals don't care about that. They just care about their own taxes.

Localblogging, 02871, Wastewater

Portsmouth anti-sewer forces spew roadside FUD

09oct15_sewer.jpgA makeshift dispenser full of anti-sewer scare-tactic fliers recently appeared duct-taped to road sign on Boyd's Lane in Portsmouth. No person or organization was brave enough to put their name on the fliers, which are full of big scary numbers and all-caps sentences that claim "powerful groups" want to "encourage...development" and "help fix Newport's sewer problems" at "outrageous cost" to the taxpayers.

Have to admit that I agree with them about one thing: You should attend the Town Council meeting next Wednesday, October 21 to hear the report from consultants Woodard & Curran and share your thoughts. I've already shared a couple with the Council in an e-mail I just sent:

To The Town Council:
A makeshift dispenser full of anti-sewer propaganda has been attached to a No Parking sign on Boyd's Lane. The fliers inside do not indicate any person or organization, but urge people to contact the Council.

Please consider this a contact from one Island Park resident who would like to read the report -- and hear your questions and discussion -- before making up my mind.

I have already complained to the Town Administrator and Zoning Enforcement Officer about the use of Town property.

You can reach the Town Councilat these e-mail addresses (hlittle@portsmouthri.com, dcanario@portsmouthri.com, kgleason@portsmouthri.com, khamilton@portsmouthri.com, jplumb@portsmouthri.com, jseveney@portsmouthri.com) and their phone numbers available on the Portsmouth Web site.

Full Disclosure: I live in Island Park and I believe in the scientific method.

Localblogging, 02871, Wastewater