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Bristol passes Sewer-to-the-lake project

September 01, 2010
BRISTOL— Voters at a Special Town Meeting in Bristol Saturday afternoon overwhelmingly approved the $28 million bond article enabling town officials to aggressively pursue any and all grants and federal funding opportunities for the sewer extension project commonly known as "Sewer-to-the-Lake."

The vote was 115 in favor, 38 opposed.

A two-thirds majority vote of those registered voters present at the meeting, or 102 votes, was required to pass the bond article.

At the beginning of Town Meeting, Bristol voters overwhelmingly approved the request to allow non-resident taxpayers, including many shoreline property owners, to speak at the meeting, even though they were ineligible to vote.

The warrant article authorizes the town to raise and appropriate the sum of $28 million and to accept federal monies to support the project, including American Recovery and Reinvestment Act 2009 funds set to expire at the end of September.

The purpose of the project is to upgrade and extend the town sewer system from its existing endpoint on Lake Street to neighborhoods on the southern tip of Newfound Lake, and up the eastern and western shoreline in order to protect Bristol town drinking water supplies and the pristine water quality of Newfound Lake from the threat posed by numerous aging and failing septic systems on tiny, densely crowded shorefront lots on the lake.

While some residents and property owners expressed concerns about the details of the proposed local funding formula for the project, most everyone who spoke at Saturday's meeting said they supported the sewer extension, and emphasized the importance of the project to the environmental and economic future of Newfound Lake.

After a long and lively discussion of all the issues, the original warrant article presented to the voters was amended to eliminate a provision that detailed how the town's portion of the costs of any future project would be raised.

The amendment removed the section of the article specifying that the town's portion of the bond costs would be paid entirely out of the proceeds of a user fee levied on new users connecting to the system.

After hearing numerous objections to the new user fee formula from shoreline property owners and other Bristol downtown residents alike, Select Board Chair Rick Alpers indicated that this particular formula could be revisited and revised, discussed at public hearings and decided upon at future meetings on the sewer project. He said that the sewer project will come back to voters at Town Meeting before any plan is finalized, and asked that concerns about the funding formula not be used to derail the important overall project vote.

Town officials said that the new user fee formula for financing the town's portion of the project is one that has been used historically to fund other projects, and was intended to prevent an increase to Bristol taxpayers from the sewer project.

However, since a large number of the anticipated new users to the system will be property owners at the lake, who are "summer" residents and not voters at Town Meeting, some at Saturday's meeting objected that raising the funds for the sewer solely from that source would be akin to "taxation without representation."

Others argued that the local costs of the project should be more widely shared, as the benefits of the sewer system improvements would accrue broadly to all Bristol residents and to residents of all communities around Newfound Lake.

Several speakers urged the town to take a "global approach" to the water quality issue, including other Newfound communities in efforts to protect the lake. Others raised concerns about other potential sources of pollution to the lake, such as stormwater runoff and the use of fertilizers and pesticides.

While the bond article does not specify how much of the project will be financed with federal funds, town officials have pledged to the voters on many occasions that no more than 25 percent of the total cost of the project, or $7 million, will be raised locally. Voters at Saturday's Special Town Meeting were explicitly asked to take that promise on faith. Alpers and Sewer Extension Project Committee Chairman Rep. Burt Williams both reiterated their commitment to obtaining 75 percent federal funding for the project before moving forward with the work.

Voters soundly defeated a proposed amendment to the article that would have limited the town's portion of the financing of the project to 10 percent of total project costs. While a number of people said they were concerned that the article, as written, amounted to giving the select board a "blank check" to proceed with the project at any cost to the taxpayers, Alpers explained that a 10 percent cost share formula was most likely unrealistic in the current economic climate and the amendment would have severely restricted the chance of successfully funding the project.

"We know that the total project amount of $28 million looks scary," said Alpers. "But you can rest assured that we will obtain 75 percent funding for this project or it will not go forward. If we don't get that much funding, we know that it doesn't work. It's just not affordable for Bristol."

Newfound Lake resident Walter Waring made an eloquent appeal to his fellow Bristol voters.

"We have been talking about this for almost 40 years," said Waring. "We know that we have to do this. We have had the beaches shut down (because of pollution) several times already, for a whole week last summer. If we don't do anything, we can expect that to happen more often. We cannot have any more roadblocks to this project. We have to move forward."

Martin Lord Osman
Brewster Academy
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