With Reservations, A Strong YES.
In a recent editorial we spoke in favor of Phoenicia’s
wastewater project. That shouldn’t have surprised anyone
since we’ve been advocating in support of centralized
wastewater treatment for the hamlet since 2001, and before there
was a Phoenicia Times, before that. While we gave you our conclusion,
we didn’t provide our reasoning. We owe you that and we’ll
do it in a moment. But first this question: Is the plan Phoenicia’s
voting February 3 the best solution to the hamlet’s needs?
Our view is that regrettably it may not be. Other good solutions
were possible; which might have worked best we’ll never
know. But they were:
1. Constructed Wetlands. DEP’s engineers believed this
inexpensive and near-zero-operating-cost alternative would have
worked fine. In fact given Phoenicia’s actual metered
water usage, it might have been perfect, with only a very modest
amount of land required. This alternative was killed after superficial
consideration by the town’s Wastewater Committee.
2. A DEP-funded Septic Maintenance District, with repair and
occasional replacements as necessary, and pumpouts trucked to
DEP’s underutilized treatment plant in Pine Hill.
3. A single, shared plant for Phoenicia and Boiceville. All
objections raised to this turn out to be solvable, and given
the way these plants actually work, two nearly identical ones
4 miles apart isn’t just inefficient, it’s unnecessarily
expensive for both hamlets and for DEP.
So why is Phoenicia voting on an option that’s not even
amongst these? First, it’s because our political leadership
in the watershed has, for the umpteenth time, failed us badly
in its dealings with DEP. And second it’s because our
town board allowed its Wastewater Committee to move forward
without seriously considering good and lower-cost alternatives.
For better or worse, this is all water under the bridge now.
We still share many concerns expressed by local business owners
that the costs going forward must remain manageable for them.
With a solid contractual guarantee from the system’s builders
for its O &M, we believe they can. As we’ve said for
years we think it’s unreasonable for anyone to have to
pay ANYTHING toward the cost of hooking up to the system. These
one-time costs - the single largest concern for many in Phoenicia
- are an insignificant part of the project’s overall budget
and DEP, not Phoenicia’s residents, should be paying them.
The fact they won’t be is primarily our own town’s
fault: we think negotiations with DEP were handled very poorly.
But regardless, that still leaves us with the only deal on the
table now, one that MUST be considered on its own merits and
apart from how we got there. That deal for commercial users,
is in the end, a very good deal and the one for homeowners is
even better. That’s why we support the plan now proposed;
it’s the only reasonable option still open to us. We support
it because we’re realists and believe it’s the only
good choice left for Phoenicia’s residents.
In the late 1920’s, Phoenicia was given the same opportunity
as Pine Hill and Chichester to have the City provide perpetual
wastewater treatment at no cost to its property owners. For
whatever reason back then, people decided against it and it
was the worst decision the hamlet’s ever made. And today,
all these years later, Phoenicia stands in a nearly identical
position. No, the deal on the table isn’t free. But at
$100 or so a year for homeowners, it’s as close to free
as it will ever get. And no one will ever need worry that they’ll
need to find $20,000 or $30,000 to replace their old septic
system if it fails, or find their property values go down the
tubes because they can’t. Was this the best deal we could
have gotten, or as fair as it should have been? No. But objectively
speaking it’s still good. So why do we say this?
We say this because the Phoenicia we envision for the future
will not only be as beautiful as it is today, but vibrant and
commercially thriving. But the only way we see that happening
is if we have centralized septic treatment here, just as every
other hamlet in the watershed has chosen. If we do this, and
it does become possible for businesses to expand and new ones
to open, no one stands to gain more from the hamlet’s
revitalization than its current commercial property owners.
So we see this septic system as insurance for their future,
just as we see it for every homeowner it will serve. To kill
a project of this importance because a handful of people, elected
and appointed, may not have handled things perfectly, that is
throwing away the baby with the bathwater. We’re not saying
Phoenicia MUST grow, but we are saying we have to leave our
options open so at least that’s possible. We’re
not thrilled frankly, about who’s likely to benefit from
the growth implications we see in the system’s design.
Some development interests are clearly intended to benefit and
will no doubt, by seeking to expand the district’s boundaries
in the future. But that is after all, why we elect leaders and
appoint planners. So if we have to do better in the future,
that’s where we’ll have to do it.
One final thought: DEP isn’t funding this thing to protect
the City’s water quality, They’re only doing it
to delay for some years the huge capital expenditures that filtration
will ultimately require. If they were serious about protecting
the water they’d be honestly working to solve their system’s
turbidity problems, which they’re clearly not doing. So
the need for this plant isn’t to protect the city’s
water, although it will help that some. It’s about protecting
Phoenicia’s property owners, the value of their homes
and businesses, and the whole of our town’s economic well
being far into the future. That’s why Phoenicia needs
to do this. It’s for us, not for them. We ask Phoenicia’s
residents to vote and vote yes on the wastewater referendum