Why Can’t Downtown Have More…?

More restaurants… or more variety in the stores available? Do you wonder why car repair and sales shops are more common than any other business category in Holliston?

The why is simple – every property must have a septic system. 
But in downtown Holliston, some lots are too small. Sometimes the water table is too high. As it is, the properties with functioning systems had both space and money for wastewater solutions.

Sewer Saga
Historically, opponents of sewers in the downtown have said that landmark buildings might be demolished to accommodate the desired uses or the demands of chain stores. That said, MA is home to many historic downtowns that have saved their landmark buildings with careful zoning regulations, like Concord and Lexington.

The last attempt to provide sewers across the entire town, including downtown, ended in the late 90s after money had already been invested in engineering and other preliminary work. At that point, DEP told us to handle the wastewater in Town and not pipe it to Medway, which was the original plan. That changed the engineering, finances, homes served, etc. It meant we had to find disposal sites around town. Ultimately, the projected cost per household was more than people at Town Meeting were willing to pay.

Septic vs. Tight Tank
The Bar Athena, located at 770 Washington Street, has a 32-seat capacity, which translates to 960 GPD (gallons per day of wastewater). The entire building has a total capacity of 1,412 GPD plus an exterior 1,000-gallon grease trap. This system required both significant capital investment and more land area than many downtown parcels have.

The five-bay auto repair and sales shop going into 75 Central Street will have a tight tank. Tight tanks are not allowed for all uses. They are only allowed where there is low wastewater demand and there is no other option. They do not require a leach field. They do not have a daily capacity measure but must be pumped regularly depending on use. If we tried to compare the GPD, a tight tank’s cap would be much lower, but they are not measured that way.

Downtown Parcels
Below are several properties and their respective capacities for wastewater disposal. Keep in mind that for residential properties, the minimum capacity required is 110 GPD per bedroom.

  • 703 Washington Street – Town Hall 1,864 GPD (2021 design/install) Besides daily office use, the upstairs, with kitchen, is rented for events with an estimated capacity of 150 people.
  • 725 Washington Street – Congregational Church 1,770 GPD Used five days per week for a preschool plus activities of the church.
  • 746 Washington Street – Washington, 859 LLC (Dr. Massabni, Holliston Dental) 400 GPD (1987 install/upgrade) and (2021 upgrade approval/install.)
  • 747 Washington Street – Downtown 747 Washington Street, LLC – Kamala Boutique 422 GPD (1982 install)
  • 752 Washington Street – Library 612 GPD (1987 install)
  • 770 Washington Street – 770 Washington Street LLC – Fiske’s building 1,412 GPD with 1,000-gallon exterior grease trap (2008 install/upgrade with 2019 variance for reduced gallonage restaurant flow.) Gallons are assigned to a mix of office, retail, and restaurant. Black Mountain Foods d/b/a Bar Athena is allocated 32 seats – 960 GPD.
  • 777 Washington Street – Toph RT – Superette Current system is failed. 2017 Design approval (for a variance for separation to groundwater) for an upgraded system is expired but planning continues. This parcel is affected by previous contaminating activities at 9 Green Street and 799 Washington Street (former gas station) and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is involved.
  • 75 Central Street – Selent No current system. Construction underway for 750 GPD tight tank system with conditions (2021 design/2022 install) – 2022 ZBA Special Permit for five service bays and auto sales.
  • 100 Central Street – Central-Fruit Street Property, LLC (was Dan Nissi of Metrowest Insurance and MW Realty) 2,113 GPD (2007 and 2021 improvements to Bio-Microbics FAST System.) Gallons based on a mix of office, retail, and restaurants (26 seats in 2012.) ZBA and Planning Board approvals for rehab and addition in 2011 Conservation Commission Order of Conditions.

Feasibility Study Planned
The Select Board is awaiting bids on March 25, 2022, for a study to evaluate the feasibility of developing a downtown sewer system that would be connected to the underutilized Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) at the schools on Woodland Street.

The Town seeks Engineering support and analysis to:

  • Further define the service area, the type of structures, their uses and wastewater flow to be serviced by expansion of a sewer system. This includes identifying a path that connects the most existing commercial/industrial zoned properties in the area, understanding this may impact the most cost-effective way to convey wastewater to the existing WWTP.
  • Conduct detailed topographic surveys to determine the best routing from downtown to the existing WWTP. This includes the possible connectivity of the Holliston High School located at 370 Hollis Street (Approximately 1.5 miles from the WWTP.)
  • Confirm the capacity of the existing WWTP after modernization/upgrades.
  • Prepare rough engineering design plans and specifications for the proposed sewer system.
  • Draft a Permit level Engineering Report and complete system (Sewer and WWTP) design plans for potential submission to the MassDEP.

To read the full Request for Proposals: https://www.townofholliston.us/sites/g/files/vyhlif706/f/uploads/wwtp_modernization_and_sewer_connectivity_rfp.pdf

Mary Greendale


  1. Max Emery on March 22, 2022 at 4:50 am

    Why don’t we fix our water system first before we add more infrastructure to this town?

    • Mary Greendale on March 22, 2022 at 10:50 am

      Water repairs and improvements are well underway and the new treatment facility should come online this year as I understand it. Unfortunately we cannot wait to finish one project before we pick up another. Every one of these things takes three or four or five years. The Select Board’s steps here are the first in a multi-step process.

  2. Daniel Alfred on March 22, 2022 at 8:18 am

    Great article Mary. Thank you for highlighting this issue and some of the work/options being looked at to come up with a solution. One thing we hear a lot about (and not necessarily unfairly) is that the taxes in Holliston are too high. One way to help keep taxes from rising too fast while also paying for all of the services that people in town want and need is to increase our economic development to drive increased commercial and industrial taxes. We obviously want to do this in a way that maintains the historical character and charm of downtown but I believe that this can be accomplished while also allowing for economic development. I also think that we should look towards improving the infrastructure in our Town’s industrial parks in order to attract and retain businesses and development that drives incremental tax dollars while not putting an undo burden on our downtown or on our already crowded roads. The Select Board has done a lot of good work on this and I hope that they continue to do so. At the same time, the town must think long and hard about turning away development. Over my years on the Finance Committee, a number of developments have been turned away, for one reason or another, that would have driving significant incremental taxes which could have gone towards a large number of services that many in town ask for. This will be an ongoing conversation and I appreciate your keeping it front and center in people’s minds.

    Max – we have spent ~$17 million on the water system over the past 5 years with a majority of that ($9 million) going into a water treatment plant at well number 5. This plant is not online yet but should be later this year. Once online, the expectation by the experts is that many/most of the water issues being experienced in town will be resolved. This project was first approved by Town Meeting over 4 years ago but has just taken a long time to get done.

    • Max Emery on March 22, 2022 at 12:01 pm

      Oh, I know Daniel, I voted it but to your comment about economic development too bad we don’t let business use our industrial parks I’m sure that would help, no?

  3. Bill Blinstrub on March 22, 2022 at 10:06 am

    This is a great article Mary, thank you! It shines a light on many issues Ive been wondering about for a long time. Great insight that I think our town needed. We need to keep this conversation going….

  4. Sarah Commerford on March 22, 2022 at 2:54 pm

    Great article, Mary – It’s a complex issue for sure, and one that has persisted since we moved here in 1995. Thank you for breaking it down in layman’s terms.

  5. Kate Lamontagne on March 23, 2022 at 9:07 am

    I have owned a tiny commercial property at 31 Union St that has had a tight tank for many many years. I have been praying for some sort of sewer or larger community septic connection, because it severely limits the building use, but as the residents invest huge money into septic systems in the area, it feels farther away than closer. I don’t see that they would want to pay to connect to a sewer after having to invest in a septic system. But if the connection could be optional, then it seems feasible.
    We have talked about putting a fancy micro unit on our property in order to have a septic, but its installation and maintenance cost far outweighs the cost of pumping when spread out over the years of ownership. So we continue to pump, 20 years later.
    As a small business owner (Kamala Boutique), I have watched the downtown suffer and degrade because of septic limitations. I hope that forward motion is made as the first step to preserve small businesses- both as new ventures and survival of old ones.
    Mary, this was a good informative article!

  6. Patrick McKinney on April 7, 2022 at 4:13 pm

    Another thing the town should be considering is the costs associated with running the w.w.t.p. we currently have. It has been contracted out to a private company for as far back as it was built at a cost of 80k +/-. It’s a grade 4M plant, as a town employee at the water dept. I have held a grade 5 municipal/ industrial wastewater license for almost 20 yrs and am more than capable and qualified to run it given the opportunity. A 3M license or above would fufull the need in house with a back operator, should anyone on the DPW be interested? Something to consider….

  7. Kevin Robert (Bob) Malone on April 8, 2022 at 9:04 am

    To be candid, I believe that there persists a small-town enmity against allowing and encouraging non-industrial but large commercial enterprises in our so-called “industrial parks”, especially on the part of those primarily responsible for planning and promoting town growth, perhaps responding to a perceived general sense of community NIMBY. Taxes are high and getting higher, and needs (and projects that respond to those needs) are getting bigger, more costly, and more critical. At some point there will have to be a consensus about how to realistically afford all these things, and that will have to include a better balance between a residential and commercial tax base. At some point we will have to honestly recognize that a path to future growth and improvement for our town must include tax revenue sources not currently maximized.

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