The town of Essex has made some progress on two major infrastructure hurdles facing the Essex Town Center revamp, an ongoing project to update the area’s master plan that would likely bring future development to the area if adopted.

Last fall, the public works department expressed concerns about water pressure, fire flow and sewer allocations related to this area, saying the town likely must improve or alter its current infrastructure if it hopes to accommodate the plan’s vision, which includes up to four- and five-story buildings located on either side Route 15.

Six months later, public works director Dennis Lutz says his department is several steps closer to meeting the demands.

“We’re heading in the right direction,” Lutz said. “Now it’s just a question of filling in those answers and moving the projects along at such time that if the plan is adopted … the infrastructure is in a position to make it happen.”

Lutz separates water needs into two categories: flow and pressure. The former relates to the flow of water to combat fires, with lower levels leading to less protection and increased insurance costs. The latter relates to the town water system’s ability to get adequate pressure into taller structures, a difficult task in the higher elevation parts of the town center.

A recently finished Champlain Water District study shows the town could improve water flow with two system improvements: the replacement of a six-inch water main and a new 12-inch distribution line to connect two water mains.

Public works asked the selectboard to decide whether the town should ask for designs of only the six-inch replacement, at an estimated cost of about $50,000, or include the 12-inch extension for additional $20,000, with funding from the project coming from water impact feeds and the water system replacement fund. The board decided to tackle both designs at the same time.

While those projects will help with flow problems, they won’t fix water pressure issues. So Lutz suggested any multi-story development be required to meet those needs by installing booster pumps. He also recommended all development within the higher elevation also be required to provide engineering plans that show how the project will meet acceptable pressures and flow demands at the highest elevations.

“Water to high rise buildings in the larger cities, like Boston or New York, could not be built without such systems,” Lutz said in his memo. “Essex is no different.”

“That’s going to be a cost they have to absorb,” he added.

Sewer allocation concerns are less cut and dry.

Lutz explained zoning decisions drive what’s in the sewer core and said the town originally designed the sewer map based on assumptions from the mid-1980s showing growth not in the town center, but on the other side of the municipality.  

Over the last three decades, however, some of those areas have instead adopted less intensive uses, freeing up allocation elsewhere. According to Lutz, the town’s sewer system is currently at 50 percent usage, while approved developments that have yet to hook up to the system push the total allocation to about 80 percent.

That provides some wiggle room to reallocate sewer capacity to keep pace with the ETC plan, but at least one sanitary pump station – at Lang Farm and Heritage Estates – is nearing capacity already and will require upgrades regardless.

“Within the next five years, we’re going to have to do something with it,” Lutz said.

He said the town should prepare to address the situation with either a bigger pump station, which would require further upgrades to pipes downstream, or isolate town center flows with an additional pump station. Public works has asked its consultants to detail those different scenarios and provide cost estimates; preliminary estimates show it could cost anywhere between $600,000 and $850,000, depending on the option.

Then, once the selectboard signs off on any zoning changes, public works will collaborate with the community development department to recommend changes to the sewer allocation.

Lutz added if the ETC plan is adopted, there will need to plans in place to fund and construct the necessary infrastructure changes before any projects are approved.

“We just want to make the right investments for the town and not put our money into one box when we find out three years later it should have gone into another,” he said.