Monday, May 21, 2007

Sprawl, Sewage, and Madison Landing

There’s an old saying among land use planning types: zoning is your destiny. If you zone for strip and sprawl development, you’ll get strip and sprawl development. Which is why much of Connecticut has turned into hideous, characterless strips and suburban sprawl.

So if you live in a town whose zoning calls for sprawl-type development and you try to fight it by arguing against improved sewage treatment technology, you’re either being disingenuous or ignorant. But that’s what’s happening among people in Connecticut who call themselves environmentalists. What’s more, they’re using that argument to try to stop projects (Madison Landing, a new urbanist development proposed for an old airport in Madison, near Hammonasset State Park) that are not suburban sprawl.

I’ve written about Madison Landing here, here and here. And here’s a New Haven Register story about the issue. Typically though it asserts that some people think that the improved sewage treatment system is flawed but never actually discusses whether it is or not. It shouldn’t be that hard to gather the evidence, should it?

(Environmentalists in Connecticut, by the way, have argued to me that Madison Landing is a bad idea because it’s next to Hammonasset, which has a great public beach on Long Island Sound and a big salt marsh. That might be so but if it is, the solution is to buy the land from the Madison Landing people; by arguing that the sewage system is inadequate the only result will be 30 typical McMansions with individual septic systems rather than 127 houses in a traditional neighborhood design. So by all means, persuade the state to buy it. But don’t settle for more suburban sprawl.)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came upon your entry on alternative sewage technology this morning, and thought you might be interested in a Nature Conservancy White Paper on Alternative On-Site Sewage Treatment Systems. The paper does not conclude that the technology is "bad" or "good," but warns that the use of package systems presents novel regulatory issues for both state and local authorities, one of the most important of which is who should be responsible for monitoring these systems to ensure that they do deliver on their promise of enhanced treatment. Here in Fairfield County, at least three ATs have been proposed for nitrogen sensitive sites where groundwater flows impact rivers. In these cases, failure to meet nitrogen performance standards will affect surface water quality, especially in view of the size and strength of proposed effluent flows.

Another issue is the one you mention--that alternative technology facilitates more intense development of lands than could occur with conventional septic. This is not necessarily undesirable in all cases, but it is something that most towns have not yet come to grips with. Although reliance on the absence of sewers to prevent sprawl may seem to be an inefficient strategy, it is important to remember that the state of Connecticut allowed towns to designate "sewer avoidance areas" where they did not want future growth, and these sewer avoidance areas feature in the state plan of conservation and development. Now the DEP seems to be changing the rules of the game when it grants permits for large alternative systems, supporting huge developments, in these very areas. I agree it is up to the towns to change their own land use regulations to address the impact of these systems, but most local officials don't know enough about the issue to be able to react quickly.

A final issue is the quality of the technology. The systems being proposed for private development tend to be pre-fabricated, proprietary package systems that permit minimal operator control. This industry is potentially highly competitive. If the state were to hold package systems to higher standards -- for example, by requiring nitrogen removal to 5 mg/l or lower -- some manufacturers would rise to the occasion and produce better products. If Zenon, for example, believes that its technology, although more expensive, is superior to other package systems on the market, higher standards would enable Zenon to prove that, and competitors to meet or beat Zenon. The problem now is that the DEP seems to consider every system equally reliable. So why should a developer invest in the best?

1:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you are off base on the packaged sewage treatment plants. Having started as a supporter of this technology,I am now certain it is not presently working as advertised, and some types may be very difficult ever to get working. The Madison Landing people certainly concluded that the first system they chose wouldn't get the job done. They changed to one of the best systems (still highly dependent on expert design, installation, operation and maintenance). Best data indicate that these systems on average work about 50 percent of the time. Only 10 percent work perfectly. Sub-par performance means more phosphorus and nitrogen (and sometimes worse) going into our groundwater and eventually surface water. Hope you'll join us in the fight to require the DEP to upgrade permitting and enforcement. THANKS, Margaret Minor

10:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having read and admired your book, I was somewhat dismayed to read the slant of your correspondence with Margaret Minor about "Madison Landing".

On this sensitive site, that of the old Griswold Airport (dating from the 1930s) the New York developer hopes to build 350 bedrooms in apartments, condos and houses. The land shares a half mile border with the tidal wetlands of Hammonasset Park, Ct.'s most visited park. It also borders on the Hammonasset River and its estuary. The septage, after being discharged from the Zenon "Advanceed Wastewater System", would flow into both these areas, some 35,000 gallons/day. Both ways the estuary would be damaged, as you noted in your book.

The developer has flip flopped from Amphidrome to Zenon system and claims it will produce "drinking water". He has, however to meet the challenge offered to him in a recent public hearing to bring some to drink!! And of course we know that excess fresh water is damaging to tidal wetlands. The New York developer says he is, by his own advertisement, very much concerned about the environment. Some question that assertion, especially because he started his plans with underground garages on this DEP designated flood plain.

Go back and read your book about Xanadu (p.173-75), and you will find that the developer has been using the same arguments here, and the same pseudo-science. The many supporters of our efforts to stop this development have the support of Audubon Connecticut (and also David Miller from Audubon New York), Trout Unlimited, CCHR, Nature Conservancy, Ct. Fund for the Environment, Save the Sound, etc.

The 12 Zenon systems in Ct. have a record where 47% of the time they fail to meet the state's regulations for effluent. You are encouraged to see our website: for lots more information, including some very exacting real scientific studies by people from UMass Dartmouth and MIT.

And by the way, you make two suggestions. First is that we buy the property. That's fine except it has not been for sale since 2000 when the developer obtained an option to purchase the property. He recently, under pressure from our and other environmental groups, bought it outright. It is still not for sale, yet. Your second suggestion is to compare the 127 condos, apartment houses and houses to 30 McMansions.

That is an unacceptable solution and comes from our First Selectman in Madison, who hails from Long Island. Many feel has very clouded environmental vision. He throws up that comparison for the press, but in fact, the zoning of the land has been changed and that is a false alternative. SGOD (Stop Griswold OverDevelopment) a grassroots group supported by a few thousand local residents, and others from elsewhere in the state, wants the land either to be open space, or to return to a recreational airport, certainly not urban sprawl.

There's a lot more, and you can learn a lot of it from out website.
The New Haven Register article was lopsided, and quoted extensively from Miles Sherman, who is a salesman for Zenon technology--not exactly an unbiased observer.

Incidentally our local State Senator, Ed Meyer, (Yale Law School) has introduced a bill based on an objective examination of the DEP's own data from these systems. His bill mandates a moritorium on placement of any more of these systems until the manufacturers and the the DEP can make them work. Thus far, tragically, the DEP has speculated about how better operator surveillance will help reduce the failure rate. Until the alternate wastewater disposal systems can be made work properly and meet state regulations, if they are able, this land is absolutely the wrong place to experiment.

Want more? We'll be glad to send...

Dr. Bill McCullough, Madison resident, and member of the Steering Committee of SGOD

10:24 AM  
Anonymous Bryan said...

Dr. Bill,

"New York developer"...."hails from Long Island"....

Gee, no geographical bias there.

Were that we all hailed from CT, where the environment comes first (unless you have some dredge spoils you need to dump).

4:09 PM  
Anonymous Concerned said...

Having sat through many meetings and listened to testimony about the Zenon system (proposed for the Guilford "Rock Pile" Project), I can tell you this thing is not ready for prime time. The DEP is not equipped to monitor or enforce regulations, and once the project gets the go-ahead, the developer is in the driver's seat. Towns like Madison and Guilford will be left holding the bag when these systems fail (and they are currently failing at alarming rates according to DEP's own statistics). Towns have no regulatory authority or jurisdiction over the system after the development is approved. The whole system for monitoring is corrupt and broken and no such system should approved until the DEP cleans up its own house. That is why the only sensible thing is to support Sen. Meyer's bill. No Zenon systems until we know that they are working and can be regulated and shut down if need be!

7:46 PM  

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