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Cape septic fees, sewers urged

BARNSTABLE -- A coalition of business leaders and environmentalists has proposed a new approach to dealing with waste water on Cape Cod by establishing sewer systems for dense development in town centers and proposing a $20-per-bedroom annual fee on residents. The proposal is also intended to eventually limit new construction of single-family houses that rely on individual septic systems, a radical departure for the Cape, because about 90 percent of dwellings currently use septic systems. The plan would also establish a new independent agency, the Barnstable County Water Quality Authority.

The plan requires a vote by the Legislature and a referendum in the 15 towns of the region.

Representatives from the Business Roundtable, who pitched the idea to the Barnstable County commissioners earlier this month, said that a new system for waste water was key to the region's healthy economy.

The proposed $20 per bedroom annual waste water fee is still under development, and proponents say that other options include an annual $10 per bedroom fee or a charge based on a household's water use.

The proposal has already drawn fire from developers of single-family houses, who are keenly aware that establishing more sewer systems and limiting individual septic systems will do more to change development patterns on the Cape than any of the regional planning measures or building restrictions that the late senator Paul Tsongas helped institute in the late 1980s.

"This is a crisis that is 30 years old; it's just never been tackled, because of politics and money," said John D. O'Brien, director of public policy at the Minahan Cos., a consulting firm. "We have to get the Cape going in the right direction, to preserve the livability of this area. Right now we're a few steps away from Third World status."

Because of the sandy soil, harmful levels of nitrogen from the Cape's many septic systems are leaking out into estuaries, bays, and groundwater, said Margo Fenn, executive director of the Cape Cod Commission, the regional planning agency formed in 1989 to oversee development. "If we continue to sprawl, every time a new house gets built, the nitrogen levels will just go higher and higher," said Margaret A. Geist, executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod. "We're not going to stop growth, but we can direct it to town centers. And the only way to have that is to have a waste water treatment infrastructure."

Steering growth to town centers and establishing small waste water treatment plants -- all of which would return cleansed water to the ground, rather than shipping it out to sea -- would ultimately mean limiting the number of new single-family houses in rural areas that rely on individual septic systems, Geist said.

Elizabeth Kovach, president of the Home Builders Association of Cape Cod, said the group supports the idea of dense development, especially housing, in town centers, served by new sewer systems. But she said there should be no blanket restrictions on septic systems in the few remaining undeveloped areas on the Cape.

"Limiting new subdivisions through controlling individual septic systems is not a good option," Kovach said. "We don't agree with that part of it."

An alternative would be clustered subdivisions that can be connected to hybrid septic systems that handle multiple households and are not harmful to the environment, she said. "That's a better compromise than limiting it to nothing."

Proponents of the new system say they anticipate resistance from individual towns, who would have to cede control of waste water treatment to the new agency. Plans are for the Barnstable Water Quality Authority to raise $10 million for sewer treatment projects through residential and commercial fees; participation by towns would be optional.

"This is inarguably the most overdue thing on Cape Cod," said Rick Presbrey, executive director of the Housing Assistance Corporation, a housing advocacy organization.

"We have to do this, and we have to do it now," Presbrey said.

The Business Roundtable is promoting the plan as an act of "enlightened self-interest," O'Brien said. "The environment is the economy here, and the economy is the environment. People come here for the quality of life."

Responding to widespread concerns about growth, voters approved the establishment of the Cape Cod Commission in 1989, which also required an act of the Legislature.

But the commission mostly deals with large projects, O'Brien said, while the septic system problem is the result of steady development of subdivisions of single-family houses that the commission does not deal with.

Anthony Flint can be reached at flint@globe.com.

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