BALLSTON & CLIFTON PARK — In one way of looking at it, it seems like a no-brainer: Should the town of Ballston accept a $5 million state grant to help pay for construction of a sewer system around Ballston Lake that has already been approved?
Yet, with the overall cost of the project having nearly doubled from the original estimates from five or six years ago, the sewer referendum taking place at Ballston Town Hall on Monday, Aug. 17, is roiling the community.
Even though state grants will cover the entire additional cost, as it has risen from an estimated $10.2 million to $17.5 million, the vote is re-raising questions about whether sewers are needed to address bacterial and phosphorous contamination in the lake, and whether property owners can afford the cost, about $873 per property for 30 years.
Lawn signs urging either “Yes” or “No” have sprouted up all over Burnt Hills and Ballston Lake, and there’s been a lot of debate on social media. Some opponents are worried about the costs, while others fear the construction of sewers could lead to new, or more intense, land development in a community trying to hang on to some rural charm.
The town’s Sewer Committee thinks the project needs to move forward to protect the lake’s environment. The state Department of Environmental Conservation says its waters are “impaired” due to contaminants, which evidence links to faulty septic systems.
“I am strongly supportive,” said committee Chairman Drew Hamelink. “It is something that very much needs to be done. There are documented high levels of phosporous, so there’s a significant issue in the lake — but also, there has been testing of the streams in the Buell Heights development, and it has consistently shown high levels of E.coli and coliform (bacteria).”
Not only are E.coli and coliform both associated with the fecal material of warm-blooded animals, but they also carry a health risk if consumed.
For a decade or more, the lake has seen former seasonal camps converted into year-round homes, usually without upgrades to the property’s septic systems. Concerns that failed septic systems were polluting the lake were the major reason the sewer district was planned, and that voters approved it by a 280-135 margin in 2015.
Now, five years later, it must be voted on again because of higher costs.
The big snag came when construction costs turned out to be far higher than expected when bids were opened, forcing town officials to scramble for ways to lower the cost, while also seeking additional environmental grant funding.
Following a rebidding last year in which the large construction project was broken down into five smaller contracts to attract more bidders, the construction costs now total between $13.7 million and $14.2 million. With a contingency fund and legal and design costs, the total price comes to around $17.5 million.
The sewer district extends to the hamlet of Ballston Lake, where the 1950s-era Buell Heights subdivision has a history of septic issues. Water samples taken by the town from streams that run out of Buell Heights — some taken as recently as last Wednesday — show E.coli counts four or five times the level considered safe by the state Department of Health.
Town Supervisor Eric P. Connolly said he isn’t offering an opinion on how residents should vote, since all the planning for sewers preceded his election last year. However, he has engaged with some of the plan’s critics on social media, offering rebuttals when he says inaccurate information is being presented, especially about costs.
“What I’ve been focused on is providing facts,” he said. “I have gone on record when I feel incorrect information is being shared. I feel like it is my duty as supervisor to let some of the people out there know when there is incorrect information.”
The Gazette reached out to three critics over the sewer project in recent days, none of whom responded to requests for comment.
At 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 10, the town will host a Zoom meeting during which it will debut a new interactive GIS map of the sewer district. Among other things, it will let people study relevant information about soil types, since some soils are poorly suited to septic systems, because they drain poorly.
“Anyone who hasn’t made up their mind should tune in, because we haven’t presented this level of information before,” Connolly said.
In the years since the original vote, anti-sewer sentiment has grown. In 2018, residents along Route 50 and in Burnt Hills voted down a $15.8 million plan that would have extended the Ballston Lake sewers to Burnt Hills. Concerns that sewers would promote new development was one of the driving factors among opponents.
Hamelink said the pipes in the Ballston Lake system are sized to handle slightly more than the current amount of wastewater generated around the lake, but they won’t be large enough to accommodate a significant amount of new development, as some critics fear.
Until earlier this year, when the state Environmental Facilities Corp. approved the $5 million grant to cover the additional costs, town officials feared that when push came to shove, the project wouldn’t be affordable.
The Aug. 17 referendum is on raising the total cost of the project to $17.5 million. If the referendum fails, district residents will have to pay back about $700,000 in state grant money already received and spent, from an earlier $2.5 million grant.
The cost to property owners in 2015 was estimated at $907 per household per year, but that figure is down to $873, because interest rates are lower. The town also expects to borrow slightly less than previously anticipated. In addition to the annual costs, property owners would be responsible for a one-time sewer connection cost estimated at anywhere between $3,500 and $10,000.
The sewage collected would be pumped to the north end of the lake, where it would go to the main trunk line of the Saratoga County Sewer District and the county’s sewage treatment plant in Halfmoon.
If sewers aren’t approved, Ballston Lake’s water quality will continue to deteriorate, according to a Saratoga County water quality expert.
“I think it’s clear what you’ll see over time, if you vote down the sewers, you will see a decline in the quality of the water in the lake,” said Blue Neils, the county’s Cornell Cooperative Extension stormwater management coordinator. “They’re essential.”
Neils said the GIS map the town will debut on Monday shows the Ballston Lake area has soils poorly suited for septic systems. “The vast majority of the soil in the watershed is not suitable or limited for septic systems,” he said.
The vote will take place in person from noon to 8 p.m. Monday, Aug. 17, at the Ballston Town Hall. There is one vote per property, though if a property is held in two or more names, all deedholders can vote.
There is no absentee voting in special district elections, but Ballston Town Clerk Carol Gumienny said measures will be taken due to COVID-19: everyone must maintain six-foot separation and wear a mask. Everyone will be required to use hand sanitizer when they come in. The number of people in the voting room will be limited, she said, and voters will be required to use one entrance and one exit from the building.
The referendum also must be passed by property owners at the southeast corner of the lake, who live in the town of Clifton Park. Those residents will vote during the same time and hours, but do so at the Ballston Lake Fire Station on Route 146.
If either referendum is voted down and the $700,000 needs to be paid back, town officials estimate it will cost about $614 per property for two years.
If the referendums are approved, construction is expected to start this fall, with project completion in about two years.