Aug. 6—Town Councilor Bill Saums has a vision for Ledyard Center where more housing brings more people, and more people bring more retail businesses.
The missing element to make this happen lies beneath the town's surface: sewers.
"With plans to attract businesses to Ledyard Center, what do you need? You gotta have water, you gotta have sewer," said Saums, who is chairman of the Town Council Finance Committee and liaison to the Water Pollution Control Authority.
He's said that's why the town is spending so much of its federal COVID-19 relief dollars on sewer. Ledyard received $4.3 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, and the Town Council on April 27 voted 9-0 to appropriate $1.2 million to phase one of the Ledyard Center Sewer Line Extension Project, by far the largest single ARPA allocation.
The total project cost is estimated at $2.76 million, but Mayor Fred Allyn III and Saums said the town is looking for other grants, to free up ARPA funds for non-sewer expenditures.
Phase one would install sewer line from Ledyard High School to Bill Library, and phase two would install sewer line from the library to the corner of routes 117 and 214. Phase three would expand the existing sewer line running from the high school to Pennywise Lane ― going toward the wastewater treatment plant ― to a 6-inch main, to be large enough to accept the additional wastewater from Ledyard Center.
Allyn and Saums agree that if not for ARPA funds, this project probably wouldn't be happening.
The mayor said of ARPA funds, "This money is going to cost probably everybody in the United States for a long time. Why not make it provide us returns for decades? And we truly believe that the sewer line extension will do that."
Saums said sewer coverage benefits everyone because it creates opportunity for economic development, which helps reduce the tax burden on residents.
Ledyard has to coordinate the timing of phase one with the plan to add a multi-use path running from the high school to Ledyard Center, for which the town received a state grant. Saums described it as a wide sidewalk on which emergency vehicles could also travel.
"That goes above the sewer line, so what we didn't want to do is move ahead with this thing and then tear it all up to do the sewer line," Allyn said. The original timeline was to complete the path in November, but "clearly that's not going to happen right now." The mayor hopes the sewer project only delays the path by one year.
The town has contracted with Weston & Sampson to complete design work for the sewer extension project.
Saums said the town built in 10% contingency, "but that may not be enough. Our best hope is that some other projects come in under budget, but if they all come in over budget, well, then we have a problem." With rising costs, he said the strategy "is to go as fast as we can."
There's a component to this that would come not from ARPA funding but from the developer who purchased the former Ledyard Center School in 2019. Allyn said he could develop as much as 200 or 300 units of housing behind the school, and he would have to run the sewer extension from the frontage on Fairway Drive to Colonel Ledyard Highway.
"It'll probably cost them a couple hundred thousand dollars, but it also allows them the opportunity to do a project of that magnitude because they now have public water and public sewer," the mayor said.
Allyn said it was suggested the town hold off on phase two, the extension of sewer line from Bill Library to routes 117 and 214, until the state plans to resurface Route 117, to avoid the town having to repave after installing the line.
The Town Council on April 27 also approved $175,000 to replace the pump station, which Waste Water Operations Supervisor Steve Banks said is an integral part of eventually bringing in sewer from Ledyard Center.
Banks said the new pump station is being built now and will be finished in a couple weeks. Workers have dug a hole at the treatment plant at 82 Town Farm Road and are waiting on the new station to arrive.
The current station is 60 years old, and he said the valves down below are so old they're "basically unusable," making it hard to do any maintenance on the pumps.
Banks also noted that with the current station, workers have to climb underground with a ladder and a harness, that "from a safety standpoint, it's basically a nightmare." The new system will eliminate that.
Does sewer infrastructure have implications for affordable housing?
Saums noted that the Ledyard Planning & Zoning Commission has designated Ledyard Center as a place where it would like to see more multifamily housing, "which would, presumably, also include affordable housing." But he said that's up to the developer, and the issue is not whether the town wants to build it ― and the mayor said "we definitely need" more affordable housing ― but whether anyone wants to build it and where.
"We don't say, 'Hey, build affordable housing' any more than we say, 'build a Trader's Joe's,'" Saums said. He said Ledyard Center is zoned for housing and commercial, and specifically multifamily housing.
"I think we'll always be chasing that magical 10% threshold that the state wants us to have," Allyn said, "because let's say a project gets approved and it has to have some percentage affordable, but then you still have all those other units that are not considered affordable."
In discussions about state mandates for affordable housing, people across Connecticut sometimes cite lack of sewer infrastructure as an impediment to more affordable housing, especially in more rural areas.
Matt Straub, senior program officer with the Connecticut program of Local Initiatives Support Corporation, said it's cheaper for developers to build in an area with water and sewer compared to well and septic.
Speaking not specifically about Ledyard but more broadly, he and others working in housing solutions in Connecticut agreed that lack of sewer isn't generally the biggest barrier to affordable housing.
Straub said while lack of sewer infrastructure is or can be a barrier, the bigger barriers are zoning regulations and time, saying that any time someone poses a legal challenge to a project in a given town, that's more money to a lawyer and more interest costs.
Sean Ghio, policy director for the Partnership for Strong Communities, sees blaming lack of sewer infrastructure for affordable housing shortages in southeastern Connecticut as "mostly a red herring." He noted that areas away from the Amtrak corridor and Norwich are unlikely to see many large-scale developments, and that developers have found ways to build larger projects without sewer when the site works.
"We can't build our way out of an affordable housing crisis," said Fionnuala Darby-Hudgens, director of operations at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. She said another approach is preservation, through repair and maintenance of existing housing stock.
How other towns are and aren't using ARPA dollars for sewer projects
Old Lyme allocated $158,347 to its Water Pollution Control Authority, to help fund the installation of the forced main sewer pipe exiting the Sound View neighborhood and traveling along Route 156 to East Lyme.
The $158,347 would cover the design and some of the permits required for the installation, WPCA Chairman Richard Prendergast said. That would enable this work to be the priority of the larger project to connect four beach communities to sewer systems, whereas Prendergast said ordinarily the pump station would be built first.
This is a priority because the state Department of Transportation plans to repave Route 156. Without having the pipe in first, the road would have to be repaved twice in two years, at an estimated cost of more than $1 million.
Prendergast said he keeps asking the state to delay paving until the project is ready. The issue is that he doesn't expect to know until September if the sewer project will get federal grant money.
At that point, it will become clearer if the project can go forward, "and it would be reasonable to spend the money on priority items," Prendergast said. He said "if everything doesn't fall into place," the $158,347 would go back into the town coffers for Old Lyme to spend elsewhere.
A sewer information update will be held for the public Saturday, Aug. 27 at 10 a.m. at Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School.
Waterford budgeted $2.5 million of its $5.5 million in ARPA funds for water projects: Cross Road Pump Station Upgrade, Old Norwich Road Pump Station Upgrade, Gorman Pump Station Control Panels Upgrade, and Fargo Lane Water Tower Rehab.
The town has contracted with Wright-Pierce Corp, US Automation and Lenard Engineering for these projects and has expended nearly $160,000 as of June 30, according to a quarterly report from the town.
But according to minutes from the July 12 meeting of the Waterford Utility Commission, chief engineer Neftali Soto said the bids for the Old Norwich Road and Cross Road project came in much higher than expected. The commission passed a motion to use ARPA funds for the Old Norwich Road Pump Station and table the latter for a future date.
Some municipalities are using non-ARPA funds for sewer and water projects, and others are still in the process of allocating funding. The Town of Groton, for example, has allocated about 40% of its $8.59 million share, and the City of Groton has yet to allocate any of its $2.6 million. City Mayor Keith Hedrick said spending on water and sewer is a possibility.
But the city is in a very different position than a place like Ledyard. Hedrick noted that except for a few outliers, almost all of the city has sewer coverage.
"I'm not looking to do any major extensions, because we don't need to do that. What I am looking to do is to upgrade the infrastructure we do have," Hedrick said. Noting that the city spent several hundred thousand dollars lining pumps in the Jupiter Point area, he said part of the calculus for the city is resiliency amid sea level rise.