Editorial: Aging septic systems a problem for everyone

Saturday, January 06, 2018

“Look at my beautiful septic system!” Well, maybe not. Nobody shows off their septic system to out-of-town guests, and real estate agents don’t do drive-bys pointing out a town’s new wastewater treatment plant to prospective homebuyers. But maybe they should, because the reality is that these out-of-sight, out-of-mind amenities can be either a selling point or a deal breaker when it comes to marketing a home or developing a town.

Bernardston and Conway are wrestling with these issues and, for both communities, the answers require some soul-searching.

In the case of Bernardston, flooding in Cushman Park raises the water table in the town center. John Lepore, chairman of the Bernardston Master Plan Implementation Committee, explains that when the water table rises, it suffocates the bacteria that digest waste and, in turn, the septic system fails. In 2014, 16 septic systems in Bernardston failed to pass inspection and one house was condemned partially because of a damaged system. An individual replacement septic system can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 or more, a price tag which many residents are unprepared to meet.

A similar situation exists in Conway’s town center, where aging, individual septic systems pose a danger to the town’s groundwater.

The situation in both towns stands in the way of downtown economic development in the form of restaurants, bed and breakfast establishments and small businesses that could contribute to the tax base. And then, there’s the potential drop in property value for a house that doesn’t pass Title V inspection.

Both towns have been studying the pros and cons of a downtown municipal septic system, a remedy that would increase property tax bills. Those opposed say downtown residents should have to pay to replace their individual septic systems, the same as anyone else in town.

On the other hand, “You can’t have economic development if people’s septic systems fail,” said Bernardston’s Lepore.

In a similar vein, Conway’s Joe Strzegowski, chairman of the Wastewater Study Committee, said last May, “There aren’t a lot of options in the center of town. I would hate to see the center of town destroyed. At some point, houses aren’t going to be sold for the same prices. We’re going to have a blighted community, and none of us want that.”

At Town Meeting last year, Conway voters approved spending $16,000 on a hydrogeologic analysis to see if their downtown could handle such a system. At Town Meeting this spring, Bernardston voters will be asked to authorize a similar amount for a hydrogeologist and to hire the Conway School of Landscape Design to find solutions to the flooding and septic problems.

For both towns, and others like them, these are first steps in a long process.

It all comes down to whether residents think of themselves collectively or individually. If you don’t live in the affected area, it’s tempting to see this as someone else’s problem — until public health or the future of the town is at stake.

We urge voters in Bernardston and Conway to think long-term and for the good of all.