This is a printer-friendly version of an article from

12/08/2023 03:58 PM

Officials Provide Update on Town Center

A map of the area effected by the proposed plan. Photo courtesy of Eric O’Connell

On Dec. 4, Westbrook officials held a meeting for downtown property owners to review the conceptual wastewater plan for the town center and the price tag attached to it. Further discussions will be needed before a final decision is made.

At a Board of Selectman (BOS) meeting on Sept. 12, First Selectman John Hall announced that there had been some progress on efforts to fix one of Westbrook’s longtime concerns: finding a wastewater solution for the downtown.

Before the town would move forward with any plan, town leaders said a meeting with nearby property owners in the downtown would be scheduled to discuss the next steps since they are the ones most affected by any plan.

That meeting was held on Dec. 4 with about 50 residents in attendance to hear specifics on the plan from Hall, Westbrook Town Planner Peter Gillespie, Westbrook Economic Development Commission chairman Jim Crawford, Planning Commission chairperson Marilyn Ozols, and engineer Brian Curtis from the firm Jacobson and Associates.

The Plan

Gillespie reiterated numerous times that no final decisions have been made and that the plan, at this stage, is just conceptual, meaning it could still be tweaked.

The conceptual plan calls for a gravity sewer collection system to service 50 properties in the proposed area. The sewer lines would be hooked up to each property, and existing septic tanks would be pumped out and closed.

Currently, the area handles about 17,700 gallons of wastewater per day. Under the proposed model, that number would jump to about 41,300 gallons per day.

Leaching areas could be established under the Riggio building, Ted Lane Field, and the Town Green. A treatment facility at 1316 Boston Post Road would be built, though Gillespie clarified that it would be a small treatment center mostly underground, similar to what’s used at the outlets.

The Numbers

The cost estimate to construct the proposed plan would be about $12,577,904. Furthermore, each property would pay an annual maintenance fee to use the service.

According to the presentation, the annual maintenance cost to be paid by the property owners -assuming no assistance from the town – would be $2,600 per equivalent dwelling unit (EDU). An EDU is the approximate volume of water used by a single family. Since the area that would be serviced by the proposed plan is mostly commercial, each property is likely to have more than one EDU.

As EDUs are added to the area, that price tag would come down, and increasing the development and density of the area could also decrease that number.

Gillespie said that the town is investigating ways to pay for the project and has about $1 million in American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funding earmarked. Gillespie said that there are a number of state and federal grants available that the town can apply for.

When it came time for audience questions, much of the discussion was focused on getting more concrete numbers from the town regarding the available funding. However, Gillespie said it’s also difficult to tell how much money the town could get through the grants before applying for them.

Board of Finance Chairman Paul Winch was in the audience and said the board would need to consider that in addition to the wastewater plan, the town will likely need to bond for other long-term projects like a potential new community center and replacing school roofs.

Next Steps

Gillespie told the audience that the project is going to be a several years long one due to the amount of moving parts. While a final decision on whether or not to move forward with the plan will require a town vote, there are steps that will need to be taken before it comes to that.

One of the first steps will be determining the level of interest from property owners in hooking up to the system should it be built. Hall said that if the property owners themselves weren’t interested, he didn’t see a point in continuing with the proposed plan.

“We can’t find anything about grants until we hear from the property owners,” Crawford said.

Gilespie said that more outreach will be done to both the property owners and the public at large.

“We will be getting together with our committee in a week or so after I pull together my meeting notes to talk about the immediate first steps. We will likely focus on additional outreach to the property owners who could not be there last night, but that will be something we discuss as a group,” Gillespie said.

“We will also likely put together some funding/assessment numbers with some assumptions on bonding and grant funding so that we can talk about in more detail the tax implications,” he continued.

A copy of the presentation will be available on the town website.

“Anyone who wants to stay involved can reach out to me with their contact information as we are keeping a listing/database for future meetings,” Gillespie said.

The History

Working to revitalize Westbrook’s town center has been a decades-long goal. The Town Center Revitalization Committee was first formed in 1997, and a 1998 report listed sewage disposal as a main concern for the area. Over the years, residents have reported that prospective businesses have decided to open elsewhere due to the constraints the lack of an adequate system places on the area.

A 2021 survey showed that 72% of respondents felt the town wasn’t doing enough in the downtown and felt the town should do more. At the Dec. 4 meeting, town leaders said solving the wastewater issue was the key to doing more.

Speakers at the meeting mentioned dreams of one day walking around downtown and popping into a restaurant like one can in towns like Madison, Guilford, or Old Saybrook. Others spoke about perhaps increasing the amount of available housing in the town by building more units in the downtown area.

“Anything anyone wants to do downtown is governed by the health department, and that comes to the wastewater issue,” Ozols said at the meeting.

Meanwhile, Crawford told residents that the town of Chester, which has a smaller population and household income than Westbrook, was able to turn its town center into a popular destination thanks in part to solving its wastewater issues.

“One of the major reasons Chester turned from what it was 25 years ago into what it is today is they solved the wastewater problem. Then they had the energy, enthusiasm, and the bucks to turn it into a very vibrant town,” Crawford said.

Ultimately, the project will need to be approved by the whole community if it is to move forward. Speaking with the Harbor News before Election Day, Hall listed getting the project to a vote as a core item of interest for him for next term as First Selectmen.

“It’ll be up to the people to decide. There is a big cost, but it is also a significant issue for our town, and I want to see that finished,” Hall said at the time.