PROVINCETOWN — At 6 p.m. next Wednesday, voters will gather in the town hall auditorium to debate and vote on a proposal to expand the sewer system to the entire town. The $75-million project would run collection lines through every neighborhood and eventually add about a thousand properties to the municipal wastewater system. Some property owners with newer septic systems could delay connecting until their systems fail an inspection, while owners with cesspools or substandard systems would need to connect as soon as the main lines come to their streets.
The reason for acting now is twofold, say officials: the town will need to address wastewater eventually and there is lots of federal money available right now. The American Rescue Plan Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, both passed by Congress in 2021, offer grants. Meanwhile, the state is intensifying the rules for onsite septic systems in ways that will make the replacement of failed systems much more expensive going forward.
Sewer expansion will allow for more new housing, according to Town Manager Alex Morse, while also helping address the effects of sea level rise. As the water table creeps closer to older septic systems, and as flooding becomes more common, water quality in the aquifer and the harbor could be compromised.
The project is divided into phases, with the effects on individual property owners varying widely. The plan calls for connecting properties in already sewered districts first before running new lines to unsewered districts. It also matters how old a septic system is; owners of systems installed after Jan. 1, 2000 are not required to connect until that system fails a mandatory inspection.
In addition to the question of when a property owner must connect, there is also the matter of how much it will cost.
The betterment cost, so-called because the right to access a sewer system is seen as “bettering” the value of the property, is assessed by the town to the property owner and typically paid with no interest over 20 years. Betterment fees are about $7,000 per bedroom, according to the town’s presentations, or about $350 per bedroom per year.
There is also the connection cost — that is, the amount a property owner must pay to a licensed contractor to lay pipes to the main sewer line in the street — which can vary widely.
There will be help for low-income homeowners, many of whom are retired and on fixed incomes, to pay for connection costs, according to Morse. The town is establishing a $491,000 Provincetown Income-Eligible Sewer Grant Program with American Rescue Plan Act money. Income eligibility will be based on federal rules, with a ceiling of 80 percent of area median income and an exemption for the value of a primary residence, Morse said.
There will also be a program to ensure that income-eligible renters do not see their rent increased because of a new sewer connection, Morse told the Independent, but the details of that program are still being determined.
The overall cost of the project — $75 million — is authorized in Article 5 of the town meeting warrant, requiring a two-thirds vote. Article 5 does not call for a Proposition 2½ override, however, because the $75 million is not funded by property taxes. Instead, $45 million would come from the betterments assessed to new users, $25 million would come from federal and state grants, and $5 million would come from state paving grants and a slice of the town’s rooms tax revenue.
Jim Vincent, the town’s director of public works, and sewer consultant Jim Goodrich have made at least a dozen presentations in recent months at select board meetings, three town forums, and neighborhood meetings in heavily affected areas, including Bayberry Avenue, Maple Street, and Cottage Street.
Those streets got targeted outreach because their geography makes a gravity-based line “prohibitively expensive,” said Goodrich. And while a low-pressure line in those areas would be cheaper, that would require individual property owners to install grinder pumps. Article 5 directs the town to lower the betterment assessments on such homeowners to compensate for the extra cost of the grinder pump.
Exactly how these and similar streets would be handled is still an open question, however.
At the Oct. 24 select board meeting, Chair Dave Abramson said he wasn’t comfortable with how the town was describing the situation on these streets, and he withheld his endorsement of Article 5, though he also said he might endorse it before town meeting.
A subtle point, Morse said, is that Article 5 authorizes the town to run sewer mains and assess betterments at every property in town but doesn’t require it. Particularly in a few difficult areas, subsequent engineering and design studies could conclude that a few stretches aren’t worth the expense of sewering to homeowners and the town.
Conservation commission Vice Chair Nate Mayo said that would actually be his preference. “Some of these smaller roads — it’s 200 extra yards to get to the very last house, to put three bedrooms on sewer,” Mayo said. “I’d rather see that money go to assistance with connection costs.”
Abramson told the Independent that he’s had meetings with town staff since, and he thinks communications will be clearer going forward.
“There could be areas where it might not make sense to sewer,” said Abramson. “Might be one or two properties, might be a whole neighborhood. What I thought needs to be clear is, we can’t guarantee that to anyone. We’re voting to commit to the sewer system, and we can’t promise their vote means anything else.”