Town officials are working to address several issues that could potentially impede growth in the Essex Town Center after a letter from the public works department raised concerns with the first draft of the area’s new master plan.
In a letter to the planning commission, public works director Dennis Lutz and his staff say the ETC Next proposal recommends growth without answering how the town could handle the inherent infrastructure demands.
The department highlights four areas of “significant concern.” One – a change in the plan that would have forced the town to accept large portions of Route 15 as a Class I highway – has already been nixed, and Lutz believes any stormwater problems can be remedied without too much disruption.
But the department’s remaining concerns around water pressure, fire flow and sewer allocations will likely force the town to improve or alter its current infrastructure if it hopes to accommodate the plan’s vision for the town center.
Given the consultants’ initial recommendations, growth in that area is likely: The draft plan envisions two mixed-use zones straddling Route 15 with building heights of up to four and five stories. And even without increasing density, the town is struggling to provide enough water pressure in the higher elevation portions of the town center because of their relation to the pump stations, Lutz said.
Higher buildings mean more demand to get the water to the highest floors, and the only way to remedy this problem is to create a new pressure zone with pumps whose sole purpose is to serve the town center. Lutz suggested the impacted development cover the costs on either a building-by-building basis or a collective, privately-funded system.
Separate from water pressure needs is the flow of water used to combat fires, where lower levels can lead to less protection and increased insurance costs. Lutz pointed to other areas in town with similar flow issues that have forced developers to pay for their own storage tanks.
A potential fix in the town center comes in the form of a joint project with the Champlain Water District, which wants to build another pump station in the village to control water flow in and out of Essex tanks and allow the town to connect its water system.
The town is waiting to hear back from the district on potential pipe routes and cost-sharing with CWD, but Lutz didn’t expect the project to be a substantial investment for the town, ball-parking the total around $400,000, an amount he said the town could probably cover with its capital fund.
The town is in a similar holding pattern on potential fixes to its sewer issues.
While the area proposed for the town center plan falls within the sewer core, the town originally designed the system anticipating a full-build out by 2004. Fourteen years later, it’s at around 50 to 60 percent, Lutz said, meaning there’s some wiggle room in the system: Some areas that were once envisioned for development – and the necessary sewer allocation – have instead been adopted for less intensive use. That frees up space in the system elsewhere.
But at least one sanitary pump station – at Lang Farm and Heritage Estates – is nearing capacity and can’t handle additional build-out over the next decade, Lutz wrote in his letter. Necessary upgrades would cost up to $100,000 and could address the needs of existing, assigned allocations only.
Any sewer needs above what’s already planned, however, will require additional upgrades to the existing sewer system, the department’s letter says.
The town has worked to update its Sanitary Sewer System Capacity Study, which covers the entire sewer core, and has asked its consultant to modify the study with new potential build-out scenarios that align with what’s suggested in the ETC Next plan.
That final report will help Lutz and his staff spell out the town’s options, like whether to upgrade or replace existing pump stations, reallocate some of the flow or install a new station elsewhere.
“At the end of the process, we’ll be able to provide some answers,” he said.
Striking an ominous tone, the public works’ letter may seem like a rebuke to the ambitious ETC Next efforts, but town officials assure the process is working as it should.
“Planners always think that the plan should come first because at least we have something to refer back to at any stage of the process,” said Dana Hanley, director of community development. That way, if the town needs a bond to pay for some of the improvements, it can point to the plan as evidence of the need.
“Whereas, if we just bag the plan because it doesn’t seem feasible from an infrastructure point of view, that wouldn’t be good,” she said.
Lutz agreed. He said the back-and-forth is a normal part of the process; without an idea of where the town is heading, he can’t be sure what questions need answering.
The planning commission will soon begin hosting monthly meetings to drill into the design review phase of the plan, tackling topics like whether the town should adopt a form-based code to make a more efficient and predictable development review process. The first discussion is scheduled for September 27.
Meanwhile, Lutz, Hanley and company will work behind the scenes to come up with answers to the infrastructure questions. Both seem confident they can do so.
“These things can be fixed,” Hanley said. “It’s just a matter of who pays for it and when.”