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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, January 1, 2009

2008 in Berne: Moving towards a new library and sewer district

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — Baby steps were taken in 2008 towards both merging the town library and senior center and completing the town’s sewer project.

For years, officials have discussed moving the library, as it is short on space in Town Hall in the hamlet. They settled on merging the library with the senior center at the old grange hall on Route 443. The town is in the process of drafting an agreement between the town and seniors.

“It’s moving along at a slow pace, but we’re trying to cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i,’” Supervisor Kevin Crosier said this week. “We’re going to meet with the seniors in January to sketch out a floor plan that everyone can agree upon, and try to get everybody’s needs put together now on paper, which is pretty much already done, but we need to sit down as a group to get it completed.”

The agreement, Crosier said in September, will address questions on “the use of the building, how the seniors will use the building, what the town will do for the seniors, parking for the seniors, who pays for what — things like that.”

All the utilities will be paid for, he said in September. “The town will work to construct a new portion off of the existing building for the seniors to use.” But first, it will test for asbestos in the building.

The town once discussed building a new library at the town park; the idea of moving the library next door to the Berne Masonic Lounge was also proposed.

More than $150,000 have been set aside for the project, including $50,000 from the sale of the fire station across the street from the town hall.

Crosier told The Enterprise in August that the project is “a collaborative effort between the town seniors and library.” He said that the cost of heating and maintenance for the seniors has become a heavy burden.

If the town took over the senior center, put the library there, and constructed a new joint-use room that the seniors could also use, he said, “It would be a win-win for the town and the seniors. Then, they wouldn’t have to worry about paying the utilities or expenses for heat, so they could enjoy themselves and not have to worry about doing fund-raisers to pay for heat. The library would love it because they would have a new, bigger home, and that would allow us to renovate a new town hall,” said Crosier in September.

The town has been working with the seniors for over a year. “The devil’s in the details,” Crosier said. “It’s a great idea, just going to take some time to work out. I feel confident that the seniors and the town will be able to work together to get this together.”

Sewer project

In the late 1990s, the town planned a sewer project that is still being carried out.

The project is designed to help those with substandard septic systems and contaminated wells, while complying with an order on consent from the State’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which found pollution in the Fox Creek.

Houses and businesses were built in the hamlet long before modern conveniences like washing machines for clothes and dishwashers that tax old-fashioned systems.

On Nov. 12, the town passed its sewer use ordinance. “We’re currently finishing up the securing of easements, and then we’ll be looking at construction estimates and looking to get it out to bid,” Crosier said this week.

“The ordinance oversees the sewer district; it’s kind of the rules of the road, the dos and the don’ts,” Crosier said in September. “For example, sump pumps won’t be allowed to be installed in the sewer system. There are certain criteria for how you hook up to the sewer system.”

The ordinance, he said, will apply to Sewer District Number One, “and it’s only for those homes within that district,” said Crosier. The ordinance was necessary, he said, “so the town has the legal authority to go and levy a proportional amount of taxes to each of those residents when the time comes.”

The sewer project started with a sanitation survey of the residents in the hamlet, Crosier said in September. Over a quarter-million dollars have been spent on the project to update the sewer system. The total is expected to be $2.5 million.

“Basically, that amount includes paying back the town’s general fund, because the town lent about $72,000 to get the preliminary engineering and testing done,” said Crosier.

That $72,000, he said, was paid back to the town’s general fund, and the rest of the quarter-million dollars has been for archeological studies, and the engineering of the sewer plant, distribution lines, laterals, and the main lines for the project.

“So there’s a lot of things included in that, but we’re pretty much done with those types of expenditures,” Crosier said. “In today’s market, the town of Berne is lucky to have received the funding it’s received to complete this vital project.”

Since the need for the sewer project was realized, the town has received numerous grants, including $750,000 from the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation, and $500,000 from the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Utility Service. It has also gotten money from the Department of Environmental Conservation and New York State Hudson River Valley Greenway.

“This is the most critical part of this entire process, and we’re trying to meet that target number of $2.5 million,” Crosier said in September of the total expenditures for the project. “Really, now, we’re at the end of the journey.”

Responding to concerns

Residents have expressed concerns about, among other things, a lack of representation on their behalf throughout the development of the town’s sewer-use ordinance.

After an informational meeting in September, Colin Abele of Berne wrote a letter to the Enterprise editor, expressing his feeling that his and others’ questions had been brushed off by vague responses from those running the meeting. Several residents received uninformative replies like, “It’s complicated,” Abele wrote.

Gerry Chartier, chairman of Berne’s planning board, said in October, “I was surprised by the perspective of Colin’s article. When people were saying things like, ‘It’s difficult or technical,’ it’s because it really was, and maybe even beyond their expertise.”

In addition to being Berne’s planning board chairman, Chartier retired from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation not long ago, and has been working on the town’s sewer project for years.

The people running the meeting were not the experts, Chartier said, and he doesn’t believe they were trying to be evasive. “It’s a lack of familiarity with a technically legal document,” he said. “It’s got a lot of formulas; it’s long; it’s got a glossary of technical terms.”

In his letter, Abele specified certain issues he had with the ordinance, including the lack of allowance for septic tanks, and that residents have to pay for their connection to the system.

“This is based on a model that New York State developed in the 1970s,” Chartier said in October, “and it’s been used countless times in communities all across the state.” Crosier says that their plan closely follows the one Rensselaerville.

“So, these provisions are more or less ordinary,” Chartier said. He went on to address the issue of banning garbage disposals.

“Say you finish preparing your meal, you take all this organic material, you grind it up in your disposal and put it into the sewer,” Chartier said. “When it gets to the sewer plant, they have to work harder to remove the organic material from the wastewater. So, we simply say, no disposals. Don’t grind up your garbage and put it down the drain,” he said.

In response to complaints about the cost of connection, Chartier said, “In most communities, the public sewer ends right at the shoulder of the street, right at the end of the public right-of-way, and the individual homeowner is responsible for the full cost for the pipe going from the edge of the road to their building.”

In Berne’s case, however, he said that residents are getting a better deal.

“In this case, the town of Berne is actually covering, in the public project, the pipe from the edge of the road to the proximity of the house,” said Chartier in October. “If it connects into the front yard, the public part of the sewer will come within five feet of the foundation. If the sewer has to connect to the side or back of the property, the public pipes will come halfway to the front or back of the house. So, it’s actually less expensive to connect than it is in most communities,” he said.

He went on: “Some people said, ‘You know, I can shovel, why can’t I make my own connection?’ One, they could damage the public sewer if they hook their backhoe to the public sewer. They could cause damage, and then be responsible for repair or replacement. Secondly, if it’s not done properly, it could leak or break, and that pipe could collapse, causing problems for the entire system. So, we’re discouraging people from pursuing this idea of doing the connection themselves,” said Chartier.

Self-connection to the system would require posting a very large bond, Chartier said. “This would be to indemnify the town if the resident caused damage or made a mistake. There has to be a permit for connection to the system, and part of that permit is posting a bond,” he said.

Still, residents were concerned.

Concerns about cost

“My biggest concern,” Peggy Smith of Helderberg Trail said in October, “is that I think it’s punitive towards the church buildings in town that are being assessed as dwelling units, when they don’t do laundry, and, if the toilet gets flushed five times a week, it’s a lot. I think it’s a strain,” she said. Smith is the wife of Paul David Smith, a member of the team who worked on the ordinance. They live within the hamlet.

Smith’s neighbor, Susan Hawkes-Teeter, agrees.

“With the allocation of [equivalent dwelling units], we really felt that the not-for-profit institutions, like the churches and the masons, really should not be given the same full share as a house,” Hawkes-Teeter said in October.

An equivalent dwelling unit, or EDU, is defined in the sewer law as “a unit of [measurement] used to estimate the amount of wastewater generated by a typical service connection.” Taxes are levied according to a building’s allocated number of EDUs.

“With most of those not-for-profits,” Hawkes-Teeter went on, “people don’t meet as often, they don’t take showers at church, they’re not doing their laundry, so it just seemed unfair. They have nowhere near the water usage that a house or apartment would have. So, we suggested that they be at a much lower rate — they should be allocated at a percentage of an EDU. I think we suggested .25 of a unit,” she said.

To help the situation, the board added a grieving process to the ordinance, by which people will be able to request a change in their sewer assessment.

“With a grieving process,” Crosier said in October, “if somebody was assessed 1.5 EDUs, and they thought they should only be assessed one EDU, because there was a mistake made on how much water they’re using, there will be a process for people to be able to come before the town board and have their say, just like with property tax.”

“It’s just thousands of details, that need to be considered when building one of these projects,” Chartier said in October, “and, in a small town like Berne, this might be the largest project the community will ever see.”

The 37-page sewer-use law is available online at www.berneny.org.

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