Discussion at a Falmouth Board of Health meeting over a proposed nutrient management bylaw–likely to be on the April town meeting warrant–sparked an important exchange between a lawyer who tends to represent homeowners and builders and a board concerned that a sewer system will encourage development, thus increasing the town’s nitrogen load.
Though it is still in draft form, the bylaw declares the entire town a nitrogen-sensitive area, limiting new home construction or additions to four bedrooms per acre, with those on smaller lots limited to three bedrooms.
Homes that already exceed the number of bedrooms per acre would be exempt from the bylaw.
Speaking with the board at its meeting on Monday, attorney Robert H. Ament said the bylaw, as written “would be very bad for the economy” due to limitations on future growth.
However, board member John B. Waterbury, who led the effort to draft the bylaw over the past year, explained that even the most sophisticated wastewater treatment can only remove 90 percent of nitrogen.
Because the treated effluent has to be discharged elsewhere in the watershed, the town needs to ensure that that discharge does not cause any estuary to exceed the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) mandated by state law.
“One consequence of sewering is that if there are no rules, development goes berserk,” Dr. Waterbury said.
Homes or estuaries?
The issue boils down to placing limits on development in order to safeguard the estuaries. Falmouth may end up paying $250 million to connect sewer mains from Little Pond to Seapit peninsula with the Blacksmith Shop Road treatment plant, in the proposed first phase of a project to sewer the entire town.
One problem with the bylaw that Mr. Ament didn’t mention is that it assumes the town will choose to install a large-scale sewer system. Unless town meeting members are also asked to approve the Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan (which selectmen haven’t even voted on yet), consideration of this bylaw would be premature in April.
Mr. Ament suggested that instead of meeting a per-bedroom or capacity limit, homeowners be allowed to install denitrification equipment in order to meet a certain per-gallon nitrogen limit. He added that special consideration should be given to non-residential establishments, especially schools, churches, and science institutions that offer a public benefit.
This blogger might add that affordable housing, like the proposed Spring Bars Road and VFW Hall projects, should also be exempt. Managing development should not come at the expense of residents who make less than the median income. Limiting the number of bedrooms allowed per acre would ensure that housing density remains low, thus keeping the housing prices high.
Setting a standard, without “toilet police”
The board of health appeared receptive to the idea of setting a nitrogen output standard, rather than requiring homeowners who want to build an addition or another house on an acre lot to get a variance.
Homeowners could achieve the standard inexpensively by installing a composting toilet, which removes human waste from the equation altogether. The nitrogen breaks down over time, resulting in a small amount of material which then can be disposed of in the trash, buried in a non-edible garden, or turned into fertilizer by professionals.
A Hatchville couple, Hilde Maingay and Earle Barnhart–who have appeared frequently in this blog and in the Enterprise– say that they remove almost all their household nitrogen output by using a composting toilet, composting food scraps or feeding it to chickens, and being careful to use biodegradable, low-nitrogen/phosphorus cleaning products.
They have challenged board of health member George Heufelder to test their septic tank for nitrogen content. It would be interesting to see the results, if that plan moves forward.
Perhaps with a few small changes in each household, we wouldn’t need a sewer system– nor a nutrient management bylaw.
The views and opinions in the Enterprise blogs are those of the author and are not neccessarily shared by Falmouth Publishing.