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Most controversial sewer question expected to be answered in May
By Nikki Lewers, Sooke News Mirror April 18, 2001
Members of the District of Sooke sewer study committee have moved to the next stage in the sewer study process where they will determine just how much a sewer system would cost each property owner identified in a sewer specified area. The cost to property owners is one of the most contentious issues surrounding the sewer study and recent Canada-British Columbia Infrastructure Grant application made by the district to help cover two-thirds of the $24 million price tag.
Unfortunately, it is the one question Sooke Council canít answer. Yet.
"Just as we developed these studies and took them to the public, weíre going to develop this study, this financial aspect of it and take that to the public," sewer committee chair and district councillor John Farmer said.
Many factors will come into play when determining just how the cost of building and running a sewer system will be shared by the 1,509 properties within the sewer area. Many technical questions must be answered, like what to do with parks, community halls, churches and play areas, Farmer explained. "We exclude a lot of people from taxation in our tax rolls. Those properties need to be readdressed under this principle of how weíre going to pay for things."
The sewer committee will look at all the factors, make some scenarios and present them to council. Farmer said he recognizes that the cost of a system is the most important factor for most people. "Everybody has a number thatís acceptable and everybody has a number thatís unacceptable. Our next obligation is to provide each individual with that maximum number at this point in time with as much information as we can so they can decide if this projectís okay, or is unacceptable," Farmer said.
Council worked to complete a sewer study in order to apply for an infrastructure grant by the March 15 application deadline. "The idea behind that was to obviously start dealing with some basic infrastructure for the community and we also anticipated that we may be eligible for a grant under this new program," Mayor Ed Macgregor said. Macgregor expects to be able to offer property owners a better idea of costs by the end of May.
Council used an average of $629 per parcel in determining sewer costs for its grant application, however, Macgregor stressed that number is just an average based on residential and commercial properties. "Itís just an average across all the parcels," he said. "Thereís obviously going to be a range and I donít know what that is."
If the grant application is successful, Sooke properties would pick-up $8 million of the cost of the system as well as the estimated $900,000 annual operating and maintenance costs.
Council initially looked at including only the core of Sooke in the sewer area, but expanded it to include Broomhill and Maple Avenue. "It was an obvious choice really in that the Broomhill area has had problems for years with septic fields. Itís one of the more critical areas in the community and itís fairly densely populated. The reaction weíve got so far from people in that area has been very positive," Macgregor said.
Increasing the area added an additional $8 million to the cost of the project, and the number of parcels more than doubled, Macgregor said.
"While the overall cost has increased, the costs for the property owners have decreased because of an increase in the number of users," district planner Frank Limshue explained. "Itís actually more efficient to do it that way and cost effective." Only residents located within the sewer specified area will have to pay for the cost of the sewer, Limshue said.
When it comes to approving a sewer system, Mayor Macgregor jumped the gun last fall when he said a referendum would be held. "Council decided that they had initiated this whole process. They wanted to establish a sewer system for a specified area on the basis of council initiative."
According to a legal opinion sought by the district, if council chooses to proceed with the sewer project, by initiative, it must give notice to owners of the parcels liable to be specially charged for the work. Unless within one month of the notice a majority of the owners representing at least 50 per cent of the value of the parcels liable to be specially charged, petition the council not to proceed, council may proceed to establish the specified area and charge the parcels affected.
In other words, it means if you live in the outlined area and support the project, you do nothing, if you oppose it, you have 30 days to advise the district of your wishes, Macgregor explained.
The process has raised the ire of some local residents, both inside and outside of the specified sewer area. Worried Residents Against Tax Hikes spokesperson George Butcher called the process "undemocratic." "Itís a totally rushed process. Itís embarrassing that the council would railroad and ride roughshod over the community without trying to build some understanding and without building some common ground," he said. Butcher believes council is being swayed by a "backroom cabinet."
And while there may be concerns that commercial properties within the sewer specified area may account for larger assessments, Macgregor points out that they also represent the smallest number of votes. Of the approximately 1,509 properties in the sewer area, 1,446 are residential and 53 are commercial.
Butcher said WRATH is not an antidevelopment group and actually has a lot of common ground with council. "I think weíd all like to see Sooke look a little better and have better services for people. We can do it. But rushing ahead with this, itís not going to work, itís too expensive."
Planning for future growth in the community plays an important role for council in the decision to incorporate sewers into Sooke. "The fact is that ultimately weíre going to have to define an urban containment area and the implications for that is that most of the growth is expected to take place within that area so we donít wind up with urban sprawl, Macgregor explained. "In order for us to accommodate growth in that urban containment area means densification," he said.
That means a mix of commercial and various types of residential development as the community grows, he said. "If we remain on septic systems weíre going to be really limited on what weíre going to be able to do." For example, the current minimum residential lot size in Sooke is 1,300 square metres which adds up to a large lot, but such a large lot is needed to accommodate a septic field, he said.
"The Local Area Plan anticipated in certain instances reducing the minimum lot size to 900 square metres. If weíre going to have increased density and perhaps multifamily dwellings to townhouses, apartment blocks, that sort of thing, or smaller residential lots, in the core area, weíre going to have to find some alternate ways to deal with sewage collection and treatment than we have now." Options like package treatment plants are expensive, he noted, with price tags around $10,000.
Economic development and the future of the communityís core also comes into play. "We donít anticipate that thereís going to be really serious investment or reinvestment in the downtown core area without a move to providing some basic infrastructure. If youíre going to develop commercial property for example, youíve got to look at the land value."
WRATH spokesperson Butcher said the residentsí group doesnít advocate sitting idly by and doing nothing.
"We donít want to be painted as being opposed to doing anything or reactionary if thereís problems, letís fix them up. But letís not go way over the deep end here. I personally have stated publicly that Iím not opposed to sewerage in the downtown core. But there are some requirements. If you look at the Local Area Plan I think thereís some direction there. It says that it will be done at the cost of the developers, the people who itís going to benefit, and that it will be done on site."
Butcher suggests other measures could be put in place first, like an onsite sewage system inspection and maintenance bylaw.
But Stantec Consulting project manager Tony Brcic said such a bylaw would not solve all sewage concerns. "A community septic field system will not work as is evident by sewage in ditches and high fecal coliform counts in the Harbour. A septic maintenance bylaw with mandatory inspections would not change the current requirements of the Health Act for maintenance of septic field systems," he said in a letter on the subject.
Committee chair Farmer believes the communityís septic systems are aging and pose a future threat to the community and the environment. "Thereís less than 300 recorded septic tanks and fields in a community that weíre looking at 1,500 properties for sewering. I donít think thereís a whole lot of good functioning fields out there to support this community in the long term," Farmer said.
The TíSou-ke Nation has offered its support for sewage treatment for the district. "The particular areas of concern are the drainage areas that affect the water quality of the Sooke Harbour and Basin," Chief Linda Bristol wrote in a letter to council. "As shellfish harvesting has been closed due to high fecal coliform counts the TíSou-ke people have been unable to harvest their traditional foods for many years. "As pressure for development increases, this situation can only worsen and needs to be addressed as soon as possible."
And while some suggested putting the water to the ground, Macgregor said council had Amec do an evaluation of inground disposal, as well as look at spray irrigation and agricultural irrigating. "Either the costs of the effectiveness or both of these things were just not practical. Thatís what brought us back to confirming the marine discharge," he explained. "Thereís lots of evidence that properly constructed and operated plants meet the objectives established by the Ministry of Environment."
But WRATH spokesperson Butcher still believes not enough sewage options have been considered. "If you look at the Stantec report they offer up two extreme options. One is the status quo option, what they call in their report the do nothing option, and then at the other extreme they have their expensive sewer and outfall solution. In their report they call it the big pipe option."
Farmer said he has looked at many different options for sewers. The system proposed would offer secondary treatment and disinfection, Farmer explained. He notes in scientific terms, 14 fecal coliforms per 100 ml of water is acceptable for shellfish and consumption. A rate of 14-200 coliforms per 100 ml is acceptable for swimming. "What weíre going to turn out of our secondary disinfected treatment is weíre going to go for a mean of 100 which is well below the 200 acceptable limit."
That effluent will be flushed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca from a pipe which will be approximately 50 metres deep and about one to two kilometres from shore, Mayor Macgregor explained. As for the potential for failure within the system, Farmer said there is a provision in place to allow for one week of storage.
If Sooke receives the infrastructure grant and residents and council agree to support the implementation of a sewer system for the community and the project moves forward, Sooke will probably not be in the business of operating the facility, Mayor Macgregor said. He said it is councilís intention to have a firm design, build and operate the facility.
"There are opportunities for cost savings and thatís one of the things weíre looking for. As well, rather than the municipality hiring public works staff to operate this thing, we thin thereís some real merit in looking at people who have expertise in that area being contracted to operate on our behalf and meet performance standards that we agree to in the contract," Macgregor said.
But for now, residents will have to wait until the district hears how it fares in the infrastructure grant application process.