More than 70 Old Lyme property owners, many with family ties to the Sound View neighborhood dating back three and four generations, filled the Shoreline Community Center on Hartford Avenue Sunday morning to discuss the town-wide August 13 referendum to borrow $9.5 million for sewers and to gauge support for a legal challenge.
“This is not right. This is a town infrastructure project,” said Frank Pappalardo, chair of the town’s Sound View Commission but speaking in his capacity as a resident of Swan Avenue, to summer residents and business owners who sat in folding chairs and stood along the back wall of the meeting hall used in the summertime for Bingo and pancake breakfasts.
Many but not all items in the sewer project will be covered at 25 percent by a Clean Water Funds grant, leaving $7.44 million to be paid for by sewer users, a decision by the Town of Old Lyme Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA) to place as much of the entire cost as possible onto the properties, restaurants, and businesses that make up Old Lyme’s Sound View neighborhood.
Alternately conciliatory and aggrieved, Pappalardo made efforts not to personalize an issue that had clearly become for many attending a matter of “us and them,” the roughly 280 houses, restaurants and businesses that make up Old Lyme’s Sound View neighborhood, and the much larger population of Old Lyme.
“The bottom line,” said Pappalardo, is that installing sewers in Sound View is a town infrastructure project that benefits the entire town, that is a response to a state order for the town, not just the Sound View neighborhood, to address water pollution concerns.
The decision by the town was “polarizing,” he said, after what he described as a decade of outreach efforts by the beach community.
Papallardo noted the difficulty of determining cost sharing among the three zoning districts that make up Sound View, leading to such absurdities as assessing the modest community center $94,000.
Asked by one resident whether they should vote no in the upcoming referendum, Pappalardo replied only that residents should “vote their conscience,” while acknowledging that the referendum would likely pass.
Another said that the town did a much better job of reaching out to homeowners when it came time to pay taxes — using an official mailing address — than to inform them of the referendum by mailing notices to addresses at Sound View that might or might not have mailboxes.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, Pappalardo made clear that the referendum would not be the last word on the issue, and that with four other residents he had met with a prominent attorney in the region, and was organizing a “Sound View Sewer Coalition,” to challenge the cost-sharing agreement proposed by the WPCA.
Asking for a show of hands, nearly everyone attending indicated a willingness to join a legal effort, which Pappalardo promised would tie the process in knots.
Restrictions of Clean Water Funds
Attempts by CT Examiner staff to clarify what restrictions on development are required in return for state Clean Water Funds, turned up few actual provisions or methods of enforcement.
Clean Water Funds offer property owners the opportunity to borrow funds to cover betterment assessment and sewer hookup fees with a 20-year loan at two percent interest rate.
“If a community wants to just build a sewer for economic development, that wouldn’t be part of our radar. For example, we wouldn’t be part of an industrial park,” said George Hicks, Supervising Sanitary Engineer of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Water Protection and Land Reuse, by phone on July 25.
“The sewer isn’t inducing development.”
Once the project is finished, zoning decisions are up to the town, he said.
“It’s locally controlled at that point. We don’t serve as statewide zoning,” he said. “We don’t get involved with what individuals do on their property.”
In 20 years, after the loan is paid off, if the town does something that violates state planning policies, then securing state funding in the future could be jeopardized, Hicks said.
“There are requirements with state funding that live with the project until the debt on project is paid off,” he said. “It’s a fairly complicated program and towns can be surprised. Old Lyme is at the beginning.”
Hicks said some of the restrictions include using state-approved engineers and contractors. These conditions of the project are laid out in the funding agreement, which is read by the town’s bonding counsel and not necessarily the public.
Watching the process unfold
After four years of attending every WPCA meeting, and with family roots dating to the 1880s, Rob Breen said he was not surprised by the town’s decision to lay the costs on Sound View.
“I have seen this coming for years … Sound View Beach has always been the red haired stepchild, and then the private beaches going off on their own, that gets the train rolling,” said Breen. “If the town put the bond issue out, structured it so that it would be spread across the general tax base, historically I would expect it to get shot down. I think that’s what the Board of Selectmen think. I think that’s what the WPCA thinks, but I’m disappointed that they didn’t at least try to go that way first, but this whole thing has been built on the assumption that … that’s how it would be done, that 100% of the cost would be down here in Sound View, and oh, man, I thought, this is really going to be bad, and this train has rolled along this way.”
Breen said he’d been observing the process and commenting at WPCA meetings “when I could,” but many property owners are only beginning to understand the ramifications of the project.
“Now it’s finally resonating with the people down here, this is real, this is going to happen. I’ve been expecting this day for a long long time, and now it’s here.”
Like others attending the gathering, Breen still held out hope that eventually the town will settle on a more equitable solution. “My hope of hopes is that there is a way to work this out somehow.”