Friday, June 10, 2022

Voters to decide fate of North Windham sewer project Tuesday

Windham residents will vote on a referendum Tuesday for a
proposed project to create a new sewer system and a 
wastewater treatment facility for North Windham. The project
will not raise residential taxes and is intended to safeguard
the environment while bringing new businesses and
industries to North Windham. PHOTO BY KEITH MANK  
By Ed Pierce

The results of Tuesday’s referendum could be transformative for residents of Windham as voters will determine if the town should proceed with a proposed $40.4 million sewer and wastewater treatment project for North Windham.

Town officials say that the project will not raise taxes as all but $500,000 has been covered to pay for the initiative through a combination of grant funding, a $38.9 million award by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and North Windham TIF funding supported by North Windham businesses. The project will include a new wastewater treatment facility on the grounds of Manchester School and address environmental issues by removing thousands of pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus being dumped by septic systems into the aquifer and watershed. It is intended to stimulate significant economic growth and development in the area from industry and businesses not willing to locate there because of septic system issues and costs.

Windham Town Manager Barry Tibbetts said if the project is approved, no resident will be required to hook up to the sewer and no penalty fee will be imposed if residences decline to join the sewer, unless the residence is adjacent to the sewer and experiences a total septic system failure. He said the fees to hook up to the sewer have not yet been established but would be nominal and in line with what neighboring communities charge.

The sewer project is supported by the Sebago Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, said Robin Mullins, Executive Director, Sebago Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce.

“The SLRCC has been working with the Town of Windham in support of the infrastructure improvements necessary to transition the North Windham Commercial District into the dynamic mixed-use downtown that their 21st Century Downtown Plan envisions and as it grows in its role as the service center for the Sebago Lakes Region,” Mullins said. “The planned wastewater treatment system will provide opportunities for business expansion, infill development, as well as new light industry, hotel and housing development in the downtown.”

According to Mullins, in the short-term, the new wastewater treatment system will provide the necessary infrastructure to enable Windham to become a business-friendly environment that provides a high quality of life, a vibrant economy and a welcoming atmosphere, while protecting the town’s natural resources.

“The removal of more than 100 commercial septic systems, with their thousands of pounds of nitrogen and phosphorous currently being discharged into the aquifer and ultimately into the Sebago Lake watershed, will improve the water quality of both the aquifer and the lakes and ponds surrounding the downtown,” she said. “Long-term, we are hopeful this new advanced wastewater treatment system can be a model for other growing communities around Sebago Lake and throughout Maine’s lakes region.”

Tom Bartell, the Executive Director of Windham Economic Development Corporation, said voter approval of the project will help Windham to create a business-friendly environment that provides a high quality of life, a vibrant economy, and a welcoming atmosphere, while protecting the town’s natural resources. 

“New development will not be restricted by the use of individual septic systems and the resulting wastewater will be treated to high quality standards unreachable through septic system technology, thus further protecting the Lakes Region’s environment while enabling economic growth,” he said.

Bartell said Windham has been aggressively seeking out funding partners to assist in the development of the new North Windham sewer. 
“The town has requested assistance from our congressional and senate Delegation, Cumberland County Government, as well as the State of Maine,” he said. “The Town will continue to look for additional grant opportunities as they arise. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has determined that the North Windham sewer project is a high priority and has provided the project with over $38 million of very low-interest financing and as part of that financing, $2.25 million in loan forgiveness. This unprecedented financing award provides us with an assurance that we are doing the right thing in moving forward with this environmentally and economically vital project. The remaining of the financing will be funded through commercial property taxes, both being paid currently and in the future into Tax Increment Financing Districts (TIF).”

Larry Eliason, a commercial broker, and the president of the WEDC, says he fully supports the project and encourages town residents to vote in favor of the proposal.

“As a commercial real estate professional representing owners and landlords in North Windham, I find that the lack of a public sewer system can be quite an obstacle for accommodating a wide range of businesses,” Eliason said. “I have frequently shown commercial spaces for lease and for sale and worked with town staff only to learn that a particular commercial property in North Windham cannot accommodate a proposed use as there is insufficient existing septic system capacity for the proposed use.”

Eliason said if you have ever wondered why some commercial spaces remain vacant, it is not for a lack of trying to make deals work.

“The majority of the time, the property has a private septic system rated for just so many gallons per day. Over the years, I have worked with bakeries, hair salons, nail salons, breweries, distilleries, restaurants, event centers and food manufacturers only to find that we don't have enough septic system capacity in the ground at a particular North Windham property for the proposed use,” he said. “And the cost of expanding a septic system for the proposed use is expensive. Thus, these companies move on to other towns with sewer infrastructure so they can open up quickly and operate their businesses. “I for one support the sewer initiative for North Windham as it will assist with a wider and more diversified group of potential businesses that can come to Windham," he said. <

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