Will taxpayers pick up the bill for Merrigan’s sewage?

Short version

A few weeks ago, in the public hearing regarding 64 South Elm Street, Merrigan was allowed to use his previous sewer approval instead of getting a new approval for this new application. This is important, because new, troubling information has been discovered in the interim. The Planning & Zoning Commission approved this zone change, so if sewer problems arise on Briarcliff Drive, taxpayers will be on the hook to fix them.

Long version

Back in 2020, Merrigan got an accomodation from the Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA), meaning that he had their approval to build his proposed development of 22 townhouses. While that decision was being appealed by neighbors, he threatened to build 60 units of affordable housing. He was never very serious about the plan, and word around town is that he threatens this every time somebody causes trouble for his other excessive developments. But, in that context, he got another accommodation letter from WPCA.

Note 1: The Windsor Locks WPCA does not currently grant approvals for capacity, which would be an engineer’s calculation about expected flows relative to the maximum supported by the infrastructure (pipes and pump stations). Instead, they grant accommodations, which essentially represent an engineer’s best guess as to whether the proposed development will cause sewer problems. We actually know based on WPCA email communications that the proposed development is technically over capacity.

Note 2: Here we are only considering sanitary sewers, as South Elm Street does not have storm sewers.

Shortly after granting the second accommodation, the Department of Public Works (DPW) discovered that a section of pipe East of Briarcliff Drive that travels beneath Sutton Drive was only 8 inches, rather than the 10 inches indicated on the map. This is a choke point. If enough sewage ever flows through there to exceed the capacity of an 8-inch pipe, it will be diverted north down Briarcliff Drive. Briarcliff is a notoriously problematic because its sewer lines have only a very slight downgrade. It is widely agreed upon by DPW that diversion of sewage down Briarcliff is not good.

Now fast forward to three weeks ago. There was a new proposal for 24 senior apartments on the subject property. This would double the number of residential units served by the section of pipe with the choke point. One would think that the Planning & Zoning Commission would be very concerned about possible infrastructure problems related to the proposed development. The Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) states that the Commission should get approvals from all town departments before a zone change. The WPCA did provide a two-sentence letter stating what we already knew, that their approval is based on outdated maps. The Commission did not bother to get approvals from most other town departments, and they did not discuss this sewage situation at all in their deliberations.

The most basic duty of a well-functioning Planning & Zoning Commission when hearing a zone change application is to ensure that the existing infrastructure can handle the increased load. In fact, this current Commission believes they exist only to rubber stamp plans presented by their buddies, and refuses to think critically about problems that might arise. In this case, if Merrigan builds these apartments and then a year from now there are sewage problems on Briarcliff Drive, then the taxpayers will be responsible for fixing it. Even worse, homes on Briarcliff will be flooding with sewage in the meantime.

The Planning & Zoning Commission should have required a new study to determine if the pipes on Sutton Drive can handle the projected load from this new development. Maybe the engineers would have concluded that everything will be fine, or maybe not. Residents of Windsor Locks should demand a Planning & Zoning Commission that protects taxpayers from this type of risk.