BERLIN — The Select Board is poised to put potential users of a proposed municipal water system on the clock.
In a move it hopes will prompt property owners in the Berlin Four Corners area to commit now to connecting to the water system once it is constructed, the board has agreed to waive any future hookup fees for those who sign and return soon-to-be-mailed legal agreements in the next six weeks.
The board’s Memorial Day deadline is designed to create a sense of urgency among potential users of the water system by offering a window of opportunity for them to avoid having to pay for the privilege of hooking on to the system down the line.
It’s a carrot that could go a long way toward quickly converting what for many have been informal expressions of interest in the municipal water system into the sort of binding agreements that the board wants in-hand before soliciting bids and authorizing construction of the $5.5 million infrastructure project.
Though copies of the proposed agreements aren’t yet ready for public review, barring some unanticipated delay, they are expected to be mailed out this week. Board members agreed last week they should be time-sensitive, because their offer to waive a yet-to-be-set connection fee shouldn’t be open-ended.
Though the connection fee hasn’t been formally established the number suggested to the board for its consideration is $1,500 per “equivalent residential unit.”
That could add up for high-users like the Comfort Inn and the Berlin Mall, which use many times the amount of water consumed by a typical single family home.
After months of outreach aimed at coaxing property owners to verbally commit to the project, board members agreed six weeks should be more than enough time to review, sign and return legal agreements committing to buy water from the town once the proposed system is built.
The town started actively recruiting potential water customers last October and has made slow, but steady progress toward cobbling together the critical mass of users needed to guarantee the affordable rates that were floated in the run-up to a 14-month-old special election.
At that mid-February special election voters narrowly approved a bond issue for a project that will be financed with favorable federal funding that was subsequently obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program.
The financing package includes a $1.5 million grant with the balance of the project being financed through a $4 million low-interest loan that will be repaid by ratepayers over 40 years.
In order to keep rates affordable the board needs up-front commitments from enough users to comfortably proceed with construction.
The magic number, based on latest calculations, is said to be the equivalent of roughly 350 single-family homes. That number that finally appeared to be within reach a month ago in an area that includes a mix of commercial and residential users, as well as a good bit of undeveloped land just off Exit 7 of Interstate 89.
Town officials have been tight-lipped about who has expressed interest in the water system and who hasn’t, though as contracts are signed and returned in coming weeks that should become clear.
One of the challenges faced during the recruitment phase involved properties that have invested relatively recently in expensive upgrades to private water systems, another stumbling block involved high-volume users holding out for a more favorable rate.
The town has not proposed a two-tiered rate structure and done its best to persuade potential customers of the long-term advantages of hooking on to the municipal system.
That system contemplates the construction of a 400,000-gallon storage tank, a pumping station and, perhaps most importantly, five miles of distribution line for water from three wells town-owned wells that have already been drilled, tested and permitted on Scott Hill Road.
Once constructed, the proposed water system would instantly cure a chronic problem with salt contamination experienced by several private water supplies — including the one that serves the town offices. Officials hope it also will serve as a catalyst for development in a strategically located section of town that is saddled with water quality issues.
Though the project is now running a couple of months behind schedule, officials haven’t publicly written off the potential for starting construction later this year. First they need agreements with customers and the proposed deadline should help determine in the next few weeks whether the pool of committed users is big enough to proceed.
Meanwhile, the board is facing a deadline of its own. The town’s option to acquire the privately owned Berlin Water Co. is scheduled to expire in June, and while an extension is a possibility, getting the deal done is a priority.
The private system, which serves a section of the Barre-Montpelier Road corridor between Evergreen Drive and Highland Avenue, is considered key to the project. Notwithstanding its potential for future expansion in another commercial area of the community, the town’s application for federal financing was predicated on taking over that system.
Town Administrator Jeff Schulz told board members last week that town representatives were actively working on the planned acquisition.
“They fully understand the need to make this happen,” he said.
With some important decisions looming for the board, Schulz said members likely will start seeing more of the town’s consultant, Mark Youngstrom of Otter Creek Engineering. Youngstrom is currently working on the final design of the proposed water system and will be asked to meet at least monthly with the board over the next few months.
Youngstrom has been working primarily with the town’s water supply committee, while meeting occasionally with the Select Board, during a process that started with a study back in 2007 and has progressed to the point where it will soon be time to decide whether to solicit bids. That decision will almost certainly be influenced by the response to the agreements that are scheduled to go out in the mail this week.
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