DORSET — Dorset Fire District No. 1, which has a service area that includes Dorset village, is seeking voter approval to issue a bond of up to $5 million for improvements to its water system.
The district, one of two such entities in the Northshire town, has developed plans to replace its system’s aging service lines — the galvanized steel lines that deliver water from mains to homes and businesses.
“These service lines are in poor condition and most have exceeded their normal lifespan,” the district wrote in a letter to voters last month.
The 100-year-old system currently serves 178 property owners in the village, though all property owners in the district are eligible to vote on the bond, according to the letter.
Ballots have been mailed to all of the district’s voters, who have the option of returning their completed ballots through the mail, dropping them off at the Dorset Town Offices or bringing them for in-person voting at the Town Offices on March 2.
“The Village of Dorset cannot exist without a healthy and dependable water system, so this bond, and the project it finances, are in the best interest of everyone, regardless of whether you are on town water or not,” the district wrote in the letter.
All of the system’s water comes from Kellogg Springs, which feeds downhill into the town’s reservoir. The source “is an abundant source of high-quality water, but is susceptible to seasonal droughts,” according to the district.
In 2017, a division of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation found that the district’s system “lacks the source capacity required to meet the water demands of the system’s existing users” and barred it from expanding service until it can show that it has enough water to meet customers’ needs amid droughts, according to project documents.
“In practical terms,” the district wrote of the ban on expanding service, “this means most properties in the village core cannot be developed, most existing homes cannot add bedrooms and most businesses cannot expand.”
Demonstrating to the state that the system can meet customer needs during droughts “can be accomplished by increasing the supply of water to the system and/or decreasing leakage in the system,” according to the letter.
An effort initiated several years ago to increase supply has yet to bear fruit. The district in 2018 acquired drilling rights on private property, and voters approved a $700,000 bond. But test wells “have suffered from either inadequate supply or water quality issues” and the bond has not been issued, though “we are continuing our efforts to develop a functional well on this property,” the district wrote in the letter.
A system metering station installed in November 2018 has shown “consistent high usage in the middle of the night,” some of which “can be attributed to in-home waste” but overall “far exceeds normal and confirms our suspicions of high system leakage,” according to the district.
Repairs to service lines in recent years “have cut our nighttime usage in half, but we still leak and waste 50 (percent) of the water used,” the district wrote in the letter.
Property owners in the district own and are responsible for the service lines, so the district will need to secure easements before replacing them, according to the letter. The plan also “calls for installation of water meters on all service connections and shutoff valves,” which “will provide more equity in customer billing, replacing estimated water usage with actual usage,” the district wrote.
The district is using Otter Creek Engineering, of East Middlebury, and Kepler Consulting, of Manchester, for design, documentation and permitting of the project, according to its website.
PROJECT COST, FUNDING
The district projects a maximum project cost of $5 million — a figure that includes $700,000 for the supplemental well bond — but it depends in part upon how many water customers consent to participate. Each connection to the system will pay an equal share toward the bond, according to the letter. Commercial customers that have more than one connection will pay multiple shares.
If the district replaces 80 percent of service lines, “we estimate each share to be $86 per quarter, paid as part of each customer’s quarterly water bill,” it wrote in the letter. Ben Weiss, chairman of the committee that oversees the district, emphasized in a separate news release that “while all Fire District voters can vote on the bond, only customers on the water system will pay for it.”
The bond will be provided by the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, a federal-state partnership.
The program has offered the district a loan of up to $5 million with zero percent interest and a 30-year term. The letter states 75 percent of the first $1 million and a quarter of any additional funds through the program will be forgiven, meaning the district would pay only $3.25 million of the $5 million loan. The town of Bennington last year secured millions of dollars in funding through the same program for a service-line replacement project of its own.
DISTRICT TOUTS BENEFITS
District residents on town water who participate in the project stand to avoid “costly future repairs” to their service lines, the district noted. “Also,” it wrote, “fewer repairs on the system will translate into fewer system outages and more resilience to droughts will result in fewer water restrictions.”
If the bond vote passes, customers who do not consent to the project will still need to pay their share toward the bond, “so you would be paying for everyone else’s new service lines, while getting no direct benefit,” the district wrote in the letter.
“Whether or not you are a water customer, the water-services moratorium hurts the entire community,” the district wrote. “Restricting development in Dorset’s core has a negative effect on our local economy which will in time be reflected in our property values.”
Weiss said in an interview on Tuesday that while few undeveloped lots in the village core remain, the system-wide moratorium’s impediment to home additions is an issue.
TIMELINE, INFORMATION SESSIONS
If voters approve the bond, the district expects construction to begin as soon as this fall after the project goes out to bid. The project would not be completed before fall 2022.
The district is holding weekly question-and-answer sessions at 7 p.m. every Tuesday in February through Zoom. A link is available through the district’s website, dorsetfiredistrict.org. Weiss said the community reception of the project so far largely has been positive and that the vast majority of attendees at the question-and-answer sessions have been water users.
A more formal informational meeting regarding the project will be held at 4 p.m. on March 1, also via Zoom.