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Cash-strapped Orange urged to cash in lake lots

ORANGE — For the second time since last fall, town fathers are being asked when Orange will sell lots to “squatters” at the Point, a 10-acre peninsula on Lake Mattawa.

“You’re always complaining about money and here you’re sitting on at least a million dollars … and not informing the public about what you are doing,” Water System Operator Richard Matthews said as he queried selectmen about the town’s plan to sell property in October.

He raised the subject again earlier this month.

But Matthews isn’t the only one who is eager to see the sale move forward.

Board of Health member Jane Peirce said there are significant public health risks on the Point due to improper wastewater disposal systems in many residences. With the sale of property to homeowners, “the monkey will be off the town’s back,” she added, as buyers must update septic systems to comply with state regulations.

For the last century, the Orange Water Department has owned property on the Point, allowing access to Lake Mattawa as an emergency water source.

In the early 1900s, some residents began building small camps on the property without leases or written approval from town officials.

“What’s always bothered me was that it was only the mucky-mucks — doctors and (people) like that — nobody else got to build a camp out there,” Matthews told The Recorder.

Over time, the camps were expanded. Many are now three-season and a few are year-round homes.

But about 10 years ago, town and state officials realized many of them were out of compliance with the state’s newer Title V septic system regulations. While the residences were privately built and owned, the land was town-owned, and state officials deemed Orange responsible for updating failed and substandard septic systems.

According to Water Superintendent Michael Heidorn, the water department has been eager to resolve the issue and to sell the property to existing homeowners since the mid-2000s.

“From a water supplier’s perspective, we want to see septic systems built to code so they do not pollute the lake, which will remain a potential emergency water source for the town,” he said.

Peirce said health officials are also concerned about the risk to drinking water from failed septic systems. She said the Point homes are built so close together, many will need to install tight tanks as there is insufficient room for a modern leach-field.

Peirce said development on the Point was slowed by former town officials who ordered homeowners could “maintain but not improve” their buildings. While the order may have been contributed to the lack of compliant septic systems, it also protected the lake from the wastewater effluent and driveway runoff of bigger, more elaborate homes.

Despite the risk to lake and drinking water if the imminent sanitation crisis is not averted, Peirce said Lake Mattawa remains “one of the cleanest lakes in the state.”

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection authorized the sale of Point land in 2007. Orange selectmen took custody of the parcel the following year and prepared a plan of the proposed lots.

But Heidorn said sale plans stalled over preparation of the contract for hiring an appraiser.

Town Administrator Diana Schindler said the town’s a lawyer recently completed review of the contract. She told selectmen on Wednesday she is in the process of collecting bids to select an appraiser.

Schindler said she expects that the sale will move forward later this spring, with revenue available in the early part of next fiscal year.

While the value of the property has yet to be determined, Heidorn said an engineering study ballparked it at $2 million — to be split between the town’s general and water enterprise funds.

Matthews told selectmen earlier this month that if the town had moved more quickly, revenue from the sale could have averted many of the town’s current money problems.

“We only have one sander that’s working now … We have to contract out for that and buy a new one and we don’t have money for it.” He added that sales from the Point could also have prevented town officials from borrowing $95,000 as matching funds for the recent $300,000 state grant to improve Butterfield Park.

“The Water Department is anxious to resolve this issue, both for the sanity of all involved as well as the potential for additional capital funds we desperately need to continue to modernize our system,” Heidorn said.

He added the water department will pay a portion of the appraisal costs to keep the sale moving forward.

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