Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Madison Landing, Sewage Treatment Data, and the Larger Issue

Residents of Madison and Guilford, along with some prominent environmentalists, are arguing that the Connecticut DEP shouldn’t approve the sewage treatment systems being proposed for two new developments, including Madison Landing. The data show that the sewage systems don’t work, they say.

Getting the right sewage treatment system is of course important. But there's a bigger issue too, particularly because sewage system problems can be solved by technology and money -- given enough money, a developer can find the right treatment system. So the bigger question is: Do we want innovative, attractive development, or do we want the Long Island Sound region to continue its trend of ugly, characterless sprawl?

First, the issue of whether the data are correct. Today’s Hartford Courant says the data were compiled by a summer intern who might not have been as careful as he or she should have been.

The sewage treatment system in question goes by the brand name Zenon. It’s in use at a number of places in the state. The opponents of Madison Landing, as well as other people, argue that it doesn’t work as well as developers claim, and so new projects shouldn’t be allowed to use it and therefore shouldn’t be built.

But David Funkhouser, advancing yesterday’s New Haven Register story, says in today’s Courant:

A state Department of Environmental Protection engineer said Tuesday that the data had been compiled by a summer intern at the DEP and "had some errors." Warren Herzig said the DEP is reviewing the numbers "to make sure that the data was accurate and that it paints an accurate picture of the performance of these facilities."

Herzig added: "We have had experience with the Zenon system in the past. There are many of them that function, and there are some that don't." He said the review should be complete within the next 10 days, and the DEP would then consider whether it needs to take enforcement action.

It’s obviously essential that new developments connect either to a well-run municipal sewage plant or to a private facility that everyone can feel confident about over the long haul. But there’s no question that LeylandAlliance, for example, can build a sewage system for Madison Landing that meets the state requirements; whether they can afford to do so is their problem.

The more important issue is one of land use planning, and it’s here that local opponents and even state environmentalists have missed the boat.

I’m not overly familiar with Guilford Commons, for example, but as someone who lived in Connecticut for 13 years and has visited much of the state, my feeling is that Connecticut needs another ordinary shopping center about as much as it needs more cars on the Merritt Parkway in the evening. To me it doesn’t matter what sewage treatment system they use. What matters is whether land use planning and the development that follows it meets the larger needs of the community and of the environment.

Those things are harder to judge than whether wastewater discharge meets state standards, and an environmentalist from New Haven or Greenwich may be reluctant to stick his or her nose into the long-term planning process in Madison or Guilford that led to a particular zoning designation and eventually to a particular proposal.

But to try to stop a particular development by arguing that its sewage treatment plan is inadequate is a short-term tactic, and it’s probably destined to fail. And if that’s your main argument against a project, you need to be willing to agree to let it go forward once the sewage treatment issue is solved.

Madison Landing isn’t perfect. For one thing, its 55-and-older rule means that children will not live there, which means it will never be a real community. That’s a serious flaw (but it’s one that local officials, wary of new school children, impose). But as a region we need to move beyond typical subdivisions, shopping centers and strip malls. Madison Landing would do that.


Blogger Sam said...

Oh, those are called "mini-pack" plants because they are small and compact and often operated by private municipal authorities (sometimes fittingly called a MUD, of municipal utility district).

Down here in Texas they are universally reviled because they have the worst complaince histories in terms of upsets. Most city operated plants do have their problems but they are mainly related to the incoming sewer pipelines, not the wastewater treatment plant itself.

Most mini-packs have great pipelines from the local customers but when they have an upset, raw or partially treated sewage flows directly into the receiving waters, since they are not designed with extra holding tanks for emergency use. I am not a wastewater plant engineer but I have heard horror stories about them.

There ought to be a law against them, IMHO.

1:29 PM  

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