Part 2: A Closer Look: Separating the Chester water project from gravel needs

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2015 Telegraph Publishing LLCInfo meeting and town vote

In any public discussion of the proposed municipal water upgrade, most people agree that Chester’s water system has suffered from deferred maintenance and that the longer work is put off, the more extensive and expensive it is likely to be.

“We need this water project,” Jeff Holden, superintendent of water and sewer for Chester, said at a recent Select Board meeting. “Sooner or later we’re going to have to do it, and we’re trying to find the more economical way to do it.”

Water customers and non-customers alike can agree:

that pipes that are leaking nearly 40 percent of the system’s water flow need replacement,

  • that with only one water tank, which is aging, the system needs some redundancy in water storage,
  • that undersized pipes need to be upgraded and
  • that pressure under fire flow must be improved while the effects of pressure surges need to be lessened.

Then, inevitably, the talk turns to gravel. This is because the recommendation for addressing these problems is the purchase of a 139 acre parcel — which has been gravel pit — as the site for a new 330,000-gallon water tank. The Chester Select Board and Town Manager David Pisha have pointed to the benefits of having a town gravel pit (for cheap gravel and to help reduce the impact on water bills.)

But when confronted by the public with questions about the amount of gravel still available, the complexity and expense of permitting and the cost of processing, they reversed their stance to say that the issues should be taken separately.

Last week, The Chester Telegraph looked at the extensive record — much of it conducted out of public view — that the Select Board has with wanting to buy this property. This week, we are concentrating on the needs of the water system without the question of gravel.

An aging water system

The Chester water system is at least 100 years old, with the reservoir dam having been constructed in 1915. The last major upgrades were made in 1980 with construction of the Jeffrey Well, a 1 million gallon tank and improvements to water mains. Since then the system has been maintained, but funds set aside for upkeep have gone toward keeping rates low rather than improving the system.

Now Chester’s water system is not in compliance with the state’s Water Supply Rule, failing to reach several standards. While the state of Vermont does not require Chester to correct any deficiencies at this time, the water project is intended to help the water system meet those state standards.

So the Town of Chester sought advice from the Dufresne Group seeking suggestions to fix the problems. Under the guidance of Dufresne engineer Naomi Johnson, who also sits on the Chester Planning Commission, it presented three alternatives for water tank placement, which is part of Phase 1 of a water system upgrade.

Phase 1 includes a second water tank and replacement of large, crumbing water mains from River Street past Green Mountain Union High School on Route 103.

For water pressure to be equal throughout the system, a new tank would have to be placed

  • at the same elevation as the current tank, which is at 900 feet,
  • at a lower elevation with a water tower to reach 900 feet (which allows more flexibility in placement) or
  • at a lower elevation but with a booster pump.

Three proposals

According Johnson, water towers were not considered because of increased expense and aesthetic concerns while booster pumps were off the table because of the ongoing operating costs including power. Thus neither of these options was broken out and estimated for discussion. Instead, three sites at an elevation above 900 feet were presented as possible solutions.

  1. Route 35/Grafton Road: A tank at this site would handle all of the fire flow and user pressure deficiencies except low fire-fighting pressure at the high school. Resolving that would involve piping water along River Street, then on to the high school. In a head-to-head comparison of construction costs, the expense of a long run of piping eliminated the site from consideration. Looking at the water project as a whole however, most of the cost of that option was already covered in the replacement of the 10-inch asbestos/concrete water line from River Street to the high school.
  2. GMUHS site: This 1-acre site was purchased by the town in 1973 with the intent of putting a tank there before the construction of the Reservoir Road tank. While it is already owned by Chester, the construction of more than a mile of road and piping needed to connect to the water system made it a less attractive alternative.
  3. The O’Neil site: This 139-acre site has a roadway for much of the way up to the proposed tank site but also involves substantial piping to carry water to the main as well as a price tag of $399,000 to buy the property. While it is the recommended location in the Dufresne report, a question of conflict arises since the owners  — Mike and Amy O’Neil — are related to Johnson.

Head to head chart copyTo see a head to head, apples to apples comparison of costs for these three sites, click the chart to the right.

At a Nov. 5, 2014 Select Board meeting, then-board member Derek Suursoo called the schedule for putting this project together “aggressive” for the board. Johnson of Dufresne agreed saying that it was also aggressive for engineering.

It all comes down to funding

Whether we’re talking about one site or the other, one engineering solution or the other, the problem comes down to funding. And a lucky confluence of situations, at the state level, has made it possible for the town to borrow the entire cost of the water project at rock-bottom interest rates.

According to Eric Law of the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which will make the loan, Chester’s project has not been in the fundable range in years past. But when other municipalities did not use funds allocated for them, Chester was able to get in line for money from the 2013 list and in turn that made it eligible for the 2014 list, which would make up the balance of the project cost.

But that’s if the bond issue is approved by voters on Tuesday, May 19. Once that is done, there is time for the Select Board and Johnson to re-evaluate the project as a whole and make changes that improve the outcome or save the town money.  “As long as the project addresses and corrects deficiencies,” said Law, “the way you get there is less important.”

If the loan fails at the polls, the low-interest money set aside for Chester could be re-allocated to other projects and funding the water upgrade could become more complicated and expensive.

“Is the project necessary and inevitable,” said Law explaining the criteria that voters and town officials could use when deciding whether to borrow for the project, “and for each year you don’t do it, what is the cost?”

“Eventually, we will have to do this,” said Holden at a November 2014 Select Board meeting, “Do you want to get it done now or do it when you have to and it will be more expensive?”

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  1. John Grady says:

    Post gravel pit land use?

    If the land could be built on a sewer line that should be added so that energy efficient starter-homes could be built if there is a market for them. Another option is working-class retirement housing if there is a market for that. Tons of places chase after the very affluent retirees; Chester might be able to market itself to the working class retirees.

    There is expensive and or large old housing for sale in town, “money pits” sums up some of the places. So small, new and energy efficient might have a better market.

    Not for-profit developers can get things down when it’s PC development and the cost can be kept down.
    After WWII, the Veterans Administration funded housing for the GI Generation and gave a generation and their children a hand up. Today’s young people could also use a break.

    The town could sell cheap building lots and increase tax revenue along with increasing the customer base for the water and sewer department. Don’t look to squeeze every last dollar from selling building lots. Keep the price down and look at the bigger long-term picture of having a stable tax base and a nice size and right size town.

    Growth isn’t the answer to problems. It’s a Ponzi Scheme. Vermont’s larger towns have their problems so growth isn’t a solution. Finding the right size tax base to support the basic government services should be the goal.

    Small starter homes might also lure in families, which helps fill up the classrooms at the schools. Half-empty classes cost money due to lost state revenue passed out per student.

    In general. the country hasn’t built starter homes in 50 years. Lots of big 2000-plus square foot houses have been built in the last few decades but they are out of the price range for young people just starting out.

    The subdivision housing near Jack’s Diner seems to sell and they are about 50 years old so not up to modern energy efficient possibilities. But Chester could do some GREEN marketing of blue-collar workforce housing and maybe even offer a declining tax break to modest income buyers that phases out over five to 10 years.

    Skip the solar and other high cost GREEN stuff to keep the cost down, but design the roofs so solar can be added at some point by the owners.

  2. Joe Brent says:

    As I said in an earlier comment on the O’Neil property piece, the town needs this project. To paraphrase Jeff Holden, pay less for it now or pay more for it later. Still my overriding concern is who should pay for the project. With the steady increase in property taxes, an added 25 percent to 40 percent increase in water and sewer fees will hurt users for many years to come. I’m sure Monday’s meeting will be interesting to say the least.

  3. Ron Jackson says:

    Given the cost comparison, it matters little which site is chosen, so the whole “this site vs that site” is a matter of preference, not cost. The real question I have, and have not seen an answer to anywhere is, given the $4 million cost, who will be paying back the loan? Will it be water customers or town taxpayers? Yes, the water system needs upgrading, I don’t think anyone is arguing that. However, I’d be very reluctant to vote “yes” on a plan that has all taxpayers funding lower water bills for a select few in-town.