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Why Not Sewers for Holliston?

by Paul Saulnier
March 21, 2018

It's been a while since this subject has been considered. It has come up again in conversations about drinking water quality. Lots of new Holliston residents are unfamiliar with past studies. So they're asking "why not sewers"?

If memory serves, and it's painful to bring them back, there have been at least 5 studies and millions of dollars spent on the subject of sewering Holliston. I personally wasted about a thousand hours on various committees commissioned by the Selectmen to find a solution to the strangle hold that septic systems have on Holliston's growth and environmental health. In the 60s, the state and federal government offered to fund as much as 90% of the cost to install sewers and build treatment plants. Holliston voters rejected those offers. In the 80s, we realized that Holliston was too far from 495 to benefit from commercial growth and expansion of our industrial parks. Hopping Brook Park went belly up and was subsequently developed, albeit slowly due to the lack of sewers.

Also in the 80s, forward thinking citizens decided again that sewers would help Holliston grow and prosper. Tens of thousands of dollars were spent studying various alternatives. By then the environmental regulations prohibited the discharge of wastewater, no matter how well treated, into local streams. The nearest potential recipient was the Charles River. Medway operated a wastewater treatment plant discharging to the Charles and agreed to sell capacity to Holliston.

Owen Boyd chaired a new sewer committee that went to town meeting for approval. Residents filled the high school auditorium and the cafeteria. With no state or federal aid, the project was estimated to cost each property owner about $16,000 at a time when a replacement septic system cost an average of $21,000. Realtors told us that sewers would add $20,000 to the value of the average home. Sold! Design work began. Holes were drilled about 300 feet apart in every street in town to locate ledge. A sewer line was even installed in East Holliston. The route for the sewer line to Medway was layed out. Five million dollars has been spent to date on sewers. But wait, there's more.

The CRWA (Charles River Watershed Association) was basking in the glow of cleaning up the Charles. No longer did you have to go the hospital if you fell in and it was actually freezing over in winter. The CRWA got "wind" of the plan for an additional million gallons of wastewater to be dumped into the Charles River. Treated or not, CRWA was opposed to the plan. They were concerned that during the summer months treated wastewater would comprise most of the flow in the river, not a pleasant thought for kayakers. CRWA went to the state and the EPA to stop the project. They changed the rules. Now it was illegal to send water from one watershed to another and Medway is not in the same watershed as Holliston. No grandfathering. We could still have sewers but we would have to discharge the wastewater somewhere in town. Image how much area is required to replace all the septic systems for all the buildings in Holliston. A lot.

Time to start a new study and a new committee. Most of the old committee members had enough sense to quit. Not me. We found a big piece of land off Lowland for a treatment plant and subsurface disposal. Not so fast. Sherborn threatened a law suit to protect its residents with private wells on the other side of Bogastow Brook. Second choice was a large tract of land on Marshall Street next to the landfill owned by the Council on Aging. Well into the redesign, the Selectmen decided to sell/trade that land for a piece behind the Cutler School for low income housing.

Time to start a new study and a new committee. Most of the old ... The new design would require less space and no treatment as each property would keep its septic tank and only effluent would be sent to leaching fields. The scope was cut back so that some areas would no longer be included. Multiple areas were identified for leaching fields. Town meeting voted against the project.

Since that first study, several hundred septic systems have been replaced and hundreds of new houses have been added, most under the more restrictive and expensive Title 5 regulations of 1994. Except for those properties defaced with elephants buried in the yard, there will never be enough residents in Holliston to vote in favor of sewers. If you don't believe me, then start your own committee. But don't call me.

 

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Comments (12)

I remember only too well how much effort was put into a sewer effort that benefit almost every resident in Holliston. I also remember not only discussing the value proposition to the residents as far as infrastructure and residential values but a warning about very high ground water levels throughout town and the inability of septic systems to adequately protect the groundwater quality. The town should really take high use areas, like downtown and industrial parks, and put treatment system in. There are some very compact, high performance systems available today that were not available back in the 80"s. Thanks for the article Paul and it was a pleasure to work with you.

- Owen Boyd | 3/30/18 7:10 PM

Another consideration is that bars/restaurants are limited by not having access to sewers. Having more pubs and restaurants make living in town more enjoyable and may attract people to the area. I am told by a few employees in local restaurants that their kitchens are limited because of "no sewer." I admit I'm not an expert and this is anecdotal but it would be nice to have a better variety of clean high-quality restaurants with fast service.

- Matt Hodgdon | 3/26/18 9:27 AM

Thank you for sharing this info for newcomers to Holliston but I remember too well the pain of discussions that went on for years about sewers in town- providing sewers for most of the town, or just downtown and the lake area, and the original plan for the last high school renovation included a septic system update that included a pump station at the high school that would service the homes around the high school and up Prentice Street. HOURS OF DISCUSSION OVER YEARS AND NEVER AGREEMENT! It was/ is a worse memory than the traffic lights discussions. Save us from future discussions that go down this rabbit hole!

- Therese Stewart | 3/24/18 11:18 AM

Sherborn and Dover have no sewerage. All the other towns around have at least some sewerage

- Paul Saulnier | 3/22/18 6:25 PM

What towns besides Holliston do not offer a full or partial public sewer system ?

- Lee DeSorgher | 3/22/18 12:26 PM

Brian and Lisa - The industrial parks were able to handle their own discharge so were not considered high needs areas. Because we had limited discharge areas in town we had to limit the scope of what areas would be sewered. If the plan included industrial areas that could have physically managed with septics it would have been at the expense of homeowners whose properties had limitations. Please keep in mind that we all would have had to pay, to some degree, to sewer sections of town in which we did not live. Any current discussion about increasing taxes for sewers must take into consideration that taxes can also be increased for school related expenses.

- Michelle Zeame | 3/22/18 11:20 AM

Thank you thank you thank you! The last time I mentioned sewers in a public forum, I was almost laughed out of the room. Now I understand the context much better. I agree with Brian -- would love to see a study on limited sewer for downtown or commercial areas. As a School Committee member, I'm extremely concerned about our financial ability to continue paying for the high caliber of schools it seems all parents want!

- Lisa Kocian | 3/22/18 9:53 AM

Thanks Paul very helpful. Question: was a hybrid plan ever considered such as sewering the downtown and commercial districts in town which would limit the cost of implementation however bring the commercial benefits (and tax benefits to the community). I just don't see the current path we are on as sustainable without either commercial development or service sharing between neighboring towns. We all love total & local control of our small town services but eventually we will be taxed out of the ability for 14k people to pay for it.

- Brian Grace | 3/22/18 8:59 AM

Thank you for the history lesson Paul, it's always interesting to know the background to a situation like that.

- Mark Mitford | 3/21/18 6:53 PM

"Image how much area is required..."

- Geoff | 3/21/18 6:04 PM

Perhaps you'd be up to doing a live show with me on Just Thinking for HCAT TV, Paul?? You did a great job here.

- Mary Greendale | 3/21/18 11:13 AM

Paul - Thank you for being so succinct. I have a habit of writing a treatise when ever someone asks why we don't have sewers. One issue which you didn't discuss though was that some of the pump houses would be in areas that were not getting sewers and residents in the areas were very much against the plan. We were dealing with multiple issues and concerns and in retrospect there was no way that everyone would be happy -- regardless of what we proposed.

- Michelle Zeamer | 3/21/18 9:20 AM

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