By Marcello Iaia
BERNE — For roughly 17 years, the hamlet’s first sewer system has existed only on paper, in designs, through easements, and in budgets. The first municipal system for the town is about to be built. A pre-construction meeting is scheduled for May 23.
The project could revive Berne’s real estate and clean its water, with bids now submitted under budget for construction on the $3.6 million collection system and a facility to treat outflow into Fox Creek.
The town board approved $2.6 million in bids for five contracts on Feb. 27, $200,000 less than originally budgeted for construction.
“You’ll know when we start,” said Supervisor Kevin Crosier, referring to excavation along Route 443, Truax Road, Sand Road, Irish Hill Road, and Route 156.
Paperwork from contractors, including details about insurance, wages, and a cost breakdown, needs to be submitted, reviewed by engineers, negotiated, then approved by United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development before work begins on the project.
“I have been receiving excellent reports from the engineer from Rural Development, who’s up in Watertown, to get to a specific point which has to occur before they can put the shovel in the ground,” said Peter Vance, a former Berne councilman who has been project coordinator for the sewer project since 2010.
The current project has been developed since 1996 with various funding sources, two different engineering firms, and legal red tape in order to create the largest project the town has ever undertaken.
The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation ordered the town in 2000 to stop contamination of the creek from private sewage, but the problem was evident for decades before.
“In maybe 15 or 20 years, there are going to be people who might be able to drink the water from their wells,” Vance said last week. “And, in a year or so, if we happen to have a wet Fourth of July, there will not be sewage running down the ditch on the main street. Those are two really important things.”
Assistant Project Engineer for Lamont Engineers, Jason Preisner, will be resident inspector for the project, and the town board will oversee the distribution of money.
Sewer-district user fees are calculated for financial independence from the town. About two-thirds of the project is funded with grants from Rural Development, the state, and the Hudson River Greenway.
Of the $5.88 million for a wastewater system in the Central Bridge sewer district in Schoharie County, around 80 percent was funded through grants. The collection system and a treatment facility double the capacity of Berne’s were completed in 2011. User rents are under $500 annually and the district extends through the towns of Esperance and Schoharie.
Esperance Supervisor Earl Van Wormer III said the engineering firm, town officials, and letters from the DEC and the county health department helped with the five sources of grant money. The town had problems with private sewage leaking into ditches and the Cobelskill Creek, but no consent order was made.
Assemblyman Peter Lopez and state Senator James Seward, Wormer said, helped with the $3.3 million grant from Rural Development.
“I think they advocated strongly for us, and we basically told them what we needed and what we could afford,” said Wormer.
Sewer users in Berne are currently paying debt service towards a $1.18 million loan from the state’s Environmental Facilities Corporation and Department of Environmental Conservation. The 30-year, zero-interest loan accounts for side piping until five feet from each house, in order to connect homes to the main system. The Central Bridge district had an $800,000, zero-interest EFC loan.
Berne’s sewer-use law, adopted in 2008, requires residents in the district to connect within six months of a notice from the town and to retire their private systems.
Vance said the town would solicit information from plumbers so residents could then contract with for connection. The plumbers are required to have at least $50,000 in liability insurance.
“They can still get their own, provided they understand they have those requirements,” Vance said of users.
Users’ current fees, for debt service and money loaned from the town, will increase to $624 annually after the sewer is running, to include operation and maintenance costs. Part-time employees will take care of water sampling in the treatment facility and repairs.
The actual amount each user pays depends on Equivalent Dwelling Units, a measure of use for non-metered services. A two-family home will have 1.6 EDUs, and a single-family home will have just one. A buildable lot will pay debt service only.
Dusting off plans
Now that the sewer project is closer, developer Jeff Thomas is going to revisit his plan for senior housing just outside the hamlet.
“We’ll be able to work on our water system and we’ll be able to finalize our plans for the actual community,” said Thomas, who will pay for any costs to connect to the sewer system.
The 96-unit housing plan would be built on land Thomas already owns, on Canaday Hill Road.
The monthly rental costs estimated between $500 and $600 for a one-bedroom unit, and between $690 and $890 for a two-bedroom unit, when the project was first conceived in 2007, would have to be estimated again, based on the cost of construction, operation, and amenities. Thomas said they would be in that range.
“If it can’t be affordable then there’s no sense in building it,” said Thomas.
When the plan was originally proposed, Thomas said cost could be kept down with grants. He said this month the grants were “never a vital factor.”
“A lot of those grants have dried up,” said Thomas this month. “It will probably be privately funded by me.” Of the three senior housing projects he has planned in the region, Thomas said no grant money has been used. Thomas has completed Brandle Meadows on the outskirts of Altamont and has planned another senior development off of Route 20 in Guilderland.
Among the possible amenities for Berne, Thomas listed walking paths, gardens, and a community room as lower in cost, while he still floated a pool and a patio as possibilities.
The need for a sewer system for the hamlet has been discussed since the 1970s, but Crosier attributes the initiation of the current project to former supervisor Alan Zuk.
“We know we have a problem in the hamlet, and we need to get it solved,” said Zuk at the May 1996 board meeting, when a sewer committee was being formed.
In 1984 and 1996, the Albany County Health Department conducted sanitary surveys in the Berne hamlet and found both times that many properties had failing sewage systems.
In the November 1996 survey, water samples were taken, showing that 32 out of 81 properties tested positive for E. coli, a bacterium commonly found in intestines.
The board agreed to sign the DEC consent order in November of 2000, which required the town to stop effluent from draining into the Fox Creek.
Zuk told The Enterprise soon after the consent order that the outflow in question was originally the state’s responsibility, until the town changed a stormwater pipe, first installed by the state’s highway department, for the creation of the Fox Creek Town Park.
“In a way, it was the best thing that happened to us, because the consent order pushed us to the top of the funding list in a lot of different ways,” said Crosier.
By 2002, Schafer Engineering had been replaced by Lamont Engineering. Lamont’s design is called “low-tech” and “low-cost” by Crosier. Water travels through pipes, some with grinder pumps, to a preliminary treatment, slow sand filter in a metal-sided water-treatment facility. A change in the state’s ammonia discharge regulations made the Lamont system, different from Shafer’s, possible.
Wastewater passes a coarse bar screen to eliminate large objects as it flows through a grinder and seven sections of settling tanks where air is circulated through. The total capacity of the facility is 30,000 gallons each day.
Michael Vincent, who is on the planning board and the sewer committee, has operated water treatment facilities throughout his career, including ones at Thacher Park and the Mine Kill State Park in Schoharie County.
“When they design sewer plants they usually over design them a little bit, for future capacity,” said Vincent.
The flow of wastewater in the Berne plant will be rotated among four different sand beds, each holding a filter mat and about 3 feet of sand and gravel. After percolating through the sand, the water will flow into a collection system and aerated before it empties into a manhole and meets with wastewater from the nearby school, then into Fox Creek. Solid waste will be cleaned from the top of the sand beds.
A storm water pond will hold non-potable water that is pumped to the facility’s tank, eliminating the need for a well.
At one point, funding through the Capital District Transportation Committee for sidewalks for walkers coming from the school to the hamlet was sought to roll into the project. Crosier said residents pushed back.
“People self select when they move into a rural area. People like privacy,” Golden said.
By May of 2008, the expectation to request bids had come and gone, with engineering designs awaiting review by the Environmental Facilities Corporation and Rural Development. Worries about the $2.4 million cost estimate, made four years prior, had begun to set in.
“These agencies would have different requirements, and that’s what took so long,” said Crosier. “Because, you’d send it to one person at DEC and one guy would look at it and say,…‘Yeah, that looks good, go ahead.’ A guy from rural development would say, ‘Oh, no, wait a second.’”
The town board voted to increase the budget to $3.6 million the following year and began considering the use of eminent domain to locate the treatment facility.
A few months later, at the beginning of 2010, Peter Vance became project coordinator, and had been working with the sewer committee as a councilman. Since 2003, about half of the needed easements had been signed.
Vance began seeking out the remaining easements, and the number was eventually lowered to 12 residents in the district who refused to sign.
“I think some of these people thought I was a bill collector,” said Vance.
A few people signed when the sewer-use ordinance was amended to stub the main system at the property line, with no side piping, if no easement was necessary. Of the remaining easements, the property line was found to be inches from the construction, and another was negotiated.
Eminent domain was used to take 2 parcels for the treatment facility.
Vance said time could have been saved if there had been organized project management from the start.
“Part of getting through bureaucratic red tape requires being on top of it,” said Vance.
Now, he is projecting cash flow. All $1.18 million of the loan needs to be used before Dec. 31, and not everything will meet EFC requirements for reimbursement.
“We were fortunate to get a lot of grant funding from Rural Development, which isn’t necessarily available anymore,” said Vance.
Esperance Supervisor Wormer said the effect of the system in Central Bridge came soon after it was completed in 2011.
“It was alluded to that some of the poorer places to look for a property was the Central Bridge area. It’s very difficult to market. I had several real estate people tell me that,” said Wormer. “Now, it has actually reversed itself and now people want to build in there and rebuild.”
He said a “higher-end” trailer park is planned for the area.
“It’ll change the face of the hamlet,” said Golden of the system in Berne.