BURNT HILLS — A community debate is raging in Burnt Hills, as dozens of roadside signs attest.
Signs calling for “yes” or “no” votes on a $15.8 million sewer plan have sprouted — sometimes within yards of each other — on many grassy spots along Route 50 and elsewhere ahead of the April 18 referendum, which will be open only to registered voters who own property in the proposed sewer district.
While only the owners of 527 properties along Route 50 and on surrounding roads can decide whether a new sewer district is formed, residents throughout the town are taking interest, with some saying Burnt Hills’ very character is at stake.
The area to be served would be along each side of Route 50 between the Glenville town line and Route 146A — a distance of just under a mile — and on the residential roads around it, including Lakehill and Kingsley roads. It is basically the most-developed area of Ballston, which has been growing along with the rest of Saratoga County.
There has been talk about bringing sewers to the Burnt Hills hamlet for decades, but supporters say the time for a decision is now, while an already-approved sewer district around Ballston Lake is still in the design phase. It would be relatively easy to increase the size of the planned Ballston Lake sewer system to accommodate Burnt Hills during the design phase, town officials said, but much more difficult, and expensive, once the line has been constructed.
“If you want the lake people to put in a bigger pipe and have sewers in Burnt Hills, now is the time to do it,” said town Councilman William Goslin, Town Board liaison to the sewer project. “If you wait until next year, it will be $6 million more.”
Of those opposed to the project, some feel the cost is too high for the potential benefit, and others believe constructing sewers in the hamlet is a first step toward extending them into surrounding areas, where there’s open land that can be developed.
That’s exactly the fear of Joan Pott, a member of and former chairwoman of the town’s Farmland Protection and Preservation Committee. She pointed out that a public water line extended up Goode Street through agricultural land in 2004 has been allowed to serve new development, even though it wasn’t supposed to. The state Department of Agriculture and Markets is suing the town for allowing those connections, in a case that is pending.
“If we’re stupid enough not to learn from history, we deserve to look like Clifton Park,” Pott said. “If you build it, they will come.”
But sewer backers said the planned pipes won’t be large enough to handle additional sewage from beyond Burnt Hills, and access to sewers will help concentrate development in a hamlet area where the town wants to encourage it.
“Our planning and zoning consultants really suggest in our [comprehensive] plan that we have sewers in the hamlet, so we attract development to the hamlet and leave the rest of the town alone,” Goslin said. “We should be building in the hamlet; that’s what the comprehensive plan says.”
The Burnt Hills proposal has generated far more public controversy than the 2015 vote that approved installation of sewers around Ballston Lake, where many properties that were once seasonal camps have become year-round residences that leach waste water from failing septic systems. The waste water has affected the lake’s water quality.
“On the lake, there was a major documented pollution problem, and you knew if nothing was done, it’s going to get worse,” said Drew Hamelink, chairman of the town sewer committee. “On Route 50, I think the town is interested because it will facilitate smart development.”
A stream that runs through Burnt Hills has been tested and found to contain fecal coliform bacteria associated with failed septic systems, but not at high enough levels to justify a report to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Hamelink said.
The estimated cost of the sewer infrastructure would be $926 per year for each connection, a number that includes both construction debt service and the anticipated annual use charges. On top of that, however, those connecting would face a one-time cost of anywhere between $3,500 and $10,000 to hook up to the system and decommission their septic systems.
That’s too high a cost, according to David Nuzzi of Kingsley Road, who has organized residents to vote against the project and also believes the primary benefit will be to people with large pieces of developable land.
“The sewer pipe funded by town property owners and residents is a veiled handout to developers and a few businesses that don’t want to pay for their own concerns,” he said.
Nuzzi also said Burnt Hills is developing now, without sewers.
“This little hamlet has recently seen or has in progress construction of a brand-new CVS, firehouse, endoscopy center and a large Stewart’s going in at Lake Hill and Route 50, all with state-certified septic systems, all developed without a high-priced sewer pipe project,” he said. “No pipe is needed for development of Route 50.”
In response to the cost concerns, town officials on Tuesday laid out plans to relieve the financial impact on individual property owners.
If the district is approved, everyone in it will be responsible for $651 annually in debt service, but not everyone would have to connect and pay use charges, said project consulting engineer Kim Kotkoskie. The town has carved out exemptions for people with septic systems installed within the past 10 years, for people with low incomes and residents whose homes would be more than 300 feet from the sewer line. All would need to connect, however, if their septic systems fail.
Individual costs could also be reduced if the district is approved. Town officials have to wait until after the results of the vote before they apply for state grants or low-interest loans, but Goslin said state financing could reduce the annual cost by another $100 or more.
Future development could also help spread the future cost, Goslin said.
“Let’s say there’s a reasonable amount of new development. Each time one comes in, the amount of debt service you would pay would go down, because there would be more people paying into the debt service,” Goslin said.
Once they know how large the sewer main along Ballston Lake needs to be, town officials expect final design of the project to be done later this year, with construction starting next spring. The collected sewage would flow north to Shenentaha Creek in Malta, where it would connect to a Saratoga County Sewer District trunk line.
“We just need to know what the people in Burnt Hills want to do,” Goslin said. “We’re just waiting and wondering what will happen on the 18th.”
The vote will take place from noon to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 18, in Ballston Town Hall.