Skepticism for Ferrisburgh sewer system

FERRISBURGH —  Most of the 40 residents at a July 18 forum devoted to whether Ferrisburgh should accept a new sewer line were skeptical. But the developer who signed a deal with Vergennes for a possible sewer extension insisted that Ferrisburgh could benefit from the line and that the town would help determine how the line would be used. 
At what was the second of three planning commission forums at Ferrisburgh Central School on the topic, Infill Group head Bill Niquette, who has a $1 million option to buy 100,000 gallons of daily sewer capacity from Vergennes, said he would not dictate how sewer capacity would be used, although he would like it to serve an intensive development on a key 32-acre parcel near the school and town offices.
The sewer line could also serve roughly four dozen buildings between the Ferrisburgh fire station to the north and Little Otter Creek to the south. That includes the school, which has a failing septic system that is set to be replaced with an expensive in-ground system, and other buildings that also have septic problems.
Three-bedroom homes with failing systems could tap on to the line for a little more than $6,000, Niquette said. The exact depends on how much the line ends up costing (it is estimated to cost $2 million to build) and who pays.
Niquette has an option to buy the 32-acre parcel, which is owned by the Hinsdale family. It is approved for a nine-lot subdivision if Ferrisburgh and Niquette can’t agree on what he hopes will be a village-style development there.
Although Niquette insisted a final proposal might be much different, he said at the forum that he could see 100 or fewer detached homes on the 32-acre parcel, or maybe no more than 150 connected living units, some of them possibly elderly housing or homes affordable to “working families.”
But any proposal depends on the current process, he said.
“This was an opportunity for us to come to the town and say, ‘There may be conditions under which we would pay (for the sewer line), and still have the town have the lion’s share of control, as it should,’” Niquette said. “The terms and conditions of that are precisely the kinds of questions we came to the town to talk about.”
Niquette hopes that if he pays the $3 million for the sewer line, Ferrisburgh will let him develop the Hinsdale parcel. But he also told selectmen in June that other approaches are possible if the town helps pay for the line, which Vergennes would own and maintain.
In a Thursday interview Niquette talked again about cost-sharing.
“There are several reasons why it is premature to weigh the development options on the Hinsdale parcel,” he said. “The reason we asked the selectmen to appoint a committee to discuss sewer was simple: There are several critical questions that need to be answered before we can determine the net cost of installing the sewer. Are there others ­— the town or other village property owners — who have interest in sharing the upfront costs?”  
Niquette said under the right conditions — a zoning change to allow intense development of the 32 acres — that the 100,000-gallon sewer line could serve the town buildings for free and other existing buildings on a cost-only basis. In all, that capacity could serve more than 400 homes and businesses.
He said it all depends on how Ferrisburgh reacts to the proposal.
“The town’s role in this is to determine whether it should allow the line to be built, and if so, under what conditions,” he said.
Some residents on Tuesday said they did want the more rapid growth that the sewer line could bring, growth that would exceed what is called for in the town’s new plan as well as the town’s current growth rate of roughly a dozen new homes a year.
One resident said the sewer line could “open a can of worms” of other projects, and resident Marv Morley spoke for many who do not approve of a large new development.
“The ones who stand to make money are the ones who favor (the sewer line),” he said. “I’m opposed to big-time growth. It seems that the plan is to have small growth, and I’m for that.”
The planning commission will hold its final forum on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at FCS. About 40 residents came to the first hearing, on July 12, and town officials said that about 60 residents have attended at least one of the first two hearings.
After the next hearing, planners will prepare a report for selectmen that will include a summary of facts and testimony gathered during the hearings and may also recommend to selectmen what their next step should be. That report is due by Aug. 8. 
Tuesday’s hearing began with two presentations.
First, FCS officials described the school building’s current and future needs. Board Chairman Adele Langrock said about 60 percent of the $350,000 septic project must be done regardless of whether a sewer line is built, although officials may hold off installing a new mound until 2007. Officials will insist Niquette pay any cost from a delayed mound installation.
Principal Donn Marcus told the forum that officials’ best guess is that the student numbers will increase by about six per year. If that rate holds, a new mound could serve the school for about a decade, after which an addition or new school may be necessary.
“At some point, whether it is because of the sewer line or whatever growth happens, when we reach that 290-student level, that signifies something,” Marcus said.
Michael Munson, a former planner in Williston, where Niquette played a key role in a downtown makeover, also spoke. Munson said Ferrisburgh should think carefully about what it wants, make sure the town can control the process, and remember growth can increase demand for expensive services and improvements.
“Don’t let the tail wag the dog,” Munson said. “The town should think about what it wants to do in the Ferrisburgh town center.”
Ferrisburgh Fire Chief Bill Wager also noted that a major development would require increased fire, police and emergency services and equipment.
Afterward Niquette said developers often help towns afford extra services not paid for by new tax revenue.
“Most communities that face growth … impose some kind of impact fees that deal with these kinds of (costs), and it is our expectation that when we deal with those communities, they are going to want us to address those impacts,” he said. 
In responses to other questions, Niquette said:
• That he is considering a mixed-use village center, possibly with “some professional office space or business development,” but that “We don’t imagine retail other than direct community services.” 
• That on public space within the 32 acres, “We’re going to start with a concept that one-third (public shared space) makes sense,” and use town input to help identify what that open space should look like. 
• That he knew ideally the town would like to have more time to consider the future of the 32 acres and its village area, but “there will be nine houses there (on the 32 acres) in a year.” He said it was up to the town to decide whether it was worth it to speed up the ideal process to consider the sewer line before then. 
Many sounded unwilling to do so. Remarks from resident and opponent Silas Towler drew applause.
“We have a new town plan that is the result of surveys, responses, hearings, and the direct input of many, many townspeople. There is nothing in this document that says we should have the density of housing the sewer allocation requires,” Towler said. “This proposal is outside the character of our town as it is now, as it always has been, and outside what our townspeople have always indicated they desired.”
Niquette, who will open the final hearing with a presentation, said he hopes the process itself will do some good.
“We’re very grateful that the people have come out in the numbers that they have, and that the planning commission scheduled three hearings,” he said. “If we’ve succeeded in bringing the community together to have a real discussion about something that probably would have been boring in the absence of an evil developer to vilify, then well, we think that’s a good thing.”

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