State fee catches sewer users unaware

Water/Wastewater Superintendent Roger Hunt searches the Vermont Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division's website for information on state permits and rules last week. The town recently discovered the state has "universal jurisdiction" over changes to wastewater disposal systems, causing potential users of the town's new sewer system to pay a high price to hook in -- after the town severely discounted the price. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Water/Wastewater Superintendent Roger Hunt searches the Vermont Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division’s website for information on state permits and rules last week. The town recently discovered the state has “universal jurisdiction” over changes to wastewater disposal systems, causing potential users of the town’s new sewer system to pay a high price to hook in — after the town severely discounted the price. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

After a long, dusty summer of construction, Wastewater Superintendent Roger Hunt was relieved when the town core sewer project finally ended in October.

The town is proud of its project: The $3.5 million initiative laid more than two miles of new pipe on major roads in the town’s center, fulfilling a longtime goal to make that area better suited for development.

To encourage new users, the town waived residents’ $2,500 connection fee and reduced commercial properties’ fees. About 60 of the 93 adjacent property owners signed up.

But when he went to give landowners the OK to hook in, Hunt discovered a law he didn’t know existed that basically undoes the town’s goodwill.

The rule is known as “universal jurisdiction,” said Jessanne Wyman, regional engineer at the Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division. On paper, it means the state oversees and documents wastewater disposal, but in practice, it means the average homeowner pays up to $1,000 to update their systems.

Before 2007, many properties were exempt from this oversight – some if they were situated on more than 10 acres, some if they were built before 1969, Wyman said. This created unequal rules when septic systems failed: One neighbor could be subject to state rules and fees while the other wasn’t.

“People could put in who knows what for a wastewater system and could be potentially contaminating the groundwater,” Wyman said. “It kind of leveled the playing field.”

Under the new law, disposal system changes are subject to state permit fees, Wyman said. Owners must also pay either a licensed designer or engineer to supervise and document the work.

“All this costs money,” Hunt said. “It’s just added one step, and it’s added a cost which seems a little bit unfair.”

The permits aren’t cheap: Any home with up to five bedrooms and a 560-gallon daily discharge is charged $245. The fee maxes out at $9,500 for more than 10,000 gallons-per-day discharged, Wyman said.

That doesn’t include the actual cost of digging or the state-required designer and engineers’ fees.

“We have no idea what they charge,” Wyman said. “We don’t hear that.”

But Milton residents and business owners are now finding out.

Phyllis Draper, 67, didn’t have much choice but to pay $995 in state fees to abandon her failed septic system and hook into the town’s sewer. (Including installation, the whole ordeal set her back $6,000, she said.) The Middle Road resident had to dip into her retirement, gained after 20 years at the University of Vermont, she said.

Robb Doekel, Draper’s son-in-law, was disappointed but unsurprised when the state informed Draper she had to pay these unbudgeted expenses.

“It figures, because the state’s broke,” Doekel said. “Otherwise, if the state wouldn’t have gotten involved, it would have been a matter of Roger looking at the job and saying, ‘OK, it looks good.’”

But because Hunt isn’t a licensed designer or engineer, the town can’t have the final sign-off. As is, Doekel fears residents will either delay or decide to not hook in to the town’s system.

“Come on, $1,000?” Doekel said. “Milton’s got middle income families here. That’s a nice chunk of money.”

Middle Road Market owner Ron Hubert agrees: “The minute you mention the word, ‘commercial,’ the price goes up,” he said.

After Hunt reminded the business owner to amend his existing state permit, Hubert was aghast to learn he had to re-engineer the entire design. Hubert begrudgingly paid the fee but isn’t sure if he’ll file for the state permit and eventually hook in.

“It’s gotten cost prohibitive,” he said, noting his criticism has nothing to do with his general malaise over the summer-long construction.

Learning of the state rule, Hubert isn’t in any rush to spend more money when he’s got a perfectly functional septic system. Hubert, also one of Milton’s state representatives in Montpelier, understands the state wants to document wastewater lines, but that was his only concession.

“On the face, [it] sounds pretty harmless,” Hubert said. “But when you get into the weeds, there might be a few things you want to look at.”

It’s still unclear from those interviewed why the 2007 change came as a surprise to not just Hunt and Hubert but to the Chittenden County delegation who attended Milton’s legislative breakfast in December.

Even Sen. Ginny Lyons,   who served for many years as chairwoman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, which handles that agency’s business, raised her eyebrows at Hunt’s mention of the hiccup.

Lyons has since done some research and understands both the benefit of documentation and the burden of cost.

“There might be gas lines, there might be electric lines, there might be other infrastructure where the sewer line is going,” she said. “But on the other hand, if you’re looking at $1,000 … and our goal is to clean up water and land, get septic into a wastewater treatment plant, then we ought to be thinking about how to do it a little bit better.”

Lyons said the change was made in rules, or agency-made guidelines that interpret laws. Sometimes the legislative committee that approves the rules isn’t the same that enacted the law, Hubert said, and things fall through the cracks.

Wyman says universal jurisdiction was discussed for five years before it passed in 2007, and when it did, towns were notified. Hunt says he must have missed it.

Even if that’s the case, Doekel doesn’t blame the town. He thinks the state, being aware of Milton’s brand-new wastewater project, could have communicated more with property owners about the fees.

Both he and Hubert agreed the state should promote municipal sewer systems, which are, by nature of being run by experts, more reliable and, some would argue, environmentally sounder than onsite septic.

Wyman largely agrees but maintains the rules are the rules – they make wastewater disposal safer, and that benefit outweighs the financial burden, she said.

Wyman said contractors aren’t licensed: “Anybody with a machine can install a sewer line,” she said. “By designing it correctly … then we’ve got some checks on it to make sure it’s built properly.

“It’s not just something that someone can sketch on a piece of paper,” Wyman continued, adding homeowners often don’t know where their sewer lines lay. “I feel the rules are appropriate.”

Still, Hunt hopes some change can be made and on a desirable timeframe: The town’s connection incentive ends November 15. To extend it, the Selectboard has to adopt a special rate schedule.

Hunt would rather the rules allow town officials to sign off on the changes. Or if there needs to be a permit filed, it could just signify the landowner disabled the current system for a new one.

Whatever the fix, the town will lose revenue if people don’t connect, Hunt said.

Hubert hopes for change, but he’s not optimistic any will be made quickly, if at all. He’s already reached out to Sen. Lyons, who is debating putting in a new bill. She suggested the rules change to give ANR oversight instead of engineers, but she’s not sure the state has that capacity.

“There is a huge amount of debate about the best way to do this. The best way is sometimes the most expensive,” Lyons said. “The only way to change is to have the conversation.”

In the meantime?

“We have a system that needs to be paid for, and people can’t afford to hook up to it,” Hubert said, adding, “It’s something we need to look at if we truly want municipal sewer.”

News stories brought to you with support from: