Sewers not needed in Portsmouth, town planner says

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PORTSMOUTH —  Despite what the R.I. Department of Environmental Management (DEM) says, the town does not need sewers, according to Town Planner Gary Crosby.

Mr. Crosby presented to the Town Council Monday night a 44-page draft of his wastewater management plan which he called a blueprint "to manage the collective population of septic systems" in Portsmouth.

The council took no action on the plan, saying it needed further study. The draft was referred to Portsmouth's environmental attorney, Gerald Petros, and the matter will be reviewed again at a future council workshop.

The draft plan is in response to DEM's notice of violation issued to the town several years ago, which included a directive that Portsmouth install a sewer system serving Island Park and the Portsmouth Park area further south.

However, Mr. Crosby says his plan makes a "robust" argument that the town can  continue to rely on on-site wastewater treatment systems, while providing assistance to property owners who have failing septic systems that need to be repaired or replaced. His plan answers all of DEM's questions and comments made over the previous decade, he said.

"I believe they will approve it as meeting all the criteria (for a) wastewater management plan," he said.

A detailed response to the state is needed, Mr. Crosby said, because otherwise DEM will go after individual homeowners to replace their failing septic systems "in an adversarial way."

Under the 2007 Rhode Island Cesspool Act, all cesspools within 200 feet of a shoreline feature must be replaced by Jan. 1, 2014 (a five-year extension is available for qualifying low-income families).

There are probably around 350 homeowners in Portsmouth who will have to pay as much as $25,000 — the estimated cost of installing an advanced treatment system — "within the next nine months," Mr. Crosby said. (A convention treatment system costs anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000.)

If DEM approves Mr. Crosby's plan, homeowners would be eligible for low-interest state loans to either repair or replace failing septic systems and cesspools.

The town has been seeking a solution to its wastewater problems since 2001, when it received grants from DEM to produce two separate plans to address the issue. One of them, known as the Lombardo plan (2003), recommended sewers in Island Park, Common Fence Point and Portsmouth Park. However, Mr. Crosby said his draft rejects the Lombardo plan's contention that smaller lots can't support septic systems.

More study recommended

Resident Philip Driscoll told the council that while he liked Mr. Crosby's plan overall, he was skeptical that DEM would approve it as written. He recommended more scrutiny of the plan and asked the council to schedule a workshop. Joseph Robicheau agreed, saying that Mr. Crosby did a fine job but that the document needs to be studied further to make sure DEM "can't throw it back in our faces."

Another resident, Larry Fitzmorris, asked the council to make sure the plan doesn't allow private property to be inspected without a warrant, "which is of course illegal."

Council members agreed that the plan needed more study.

"This is going to impact every citizen in Portsmouth financially, emotionally. We need to go through this carefully and get it right," said council member Elizabeth Pedro, who added that she doesn't believe many citizens are even aware of the plan.

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