Unconvinced

The town wants my toilet. And yours.

For the most part, I've remained quiet on the issue of Chatham's wastewater issues but I now feel it is time to speak up. Town officials seem to be close to pulling out their hair over a spirited resistance that appears to have jumped up at the last moment. Having been one of those responsible for wastewater policy here, once upon a time, perhaps maybe what I say will carry a little more weight.

I am unconvinced.

While I do not question the science that has gone into the studies of our groundwater, pollution of our estuaries and embayments, I question the conclusions as to how to best solve this problem.

While I do not question that the eelgrass in the Oyster Pond, where I spent too many days as a boy, simply is no longer there, and the reason is choking nitrogen leeching from nearby Title V septic systems, I am not sure paying to pump my family's raw sewage miles away is the most efficient use of tax dollars.

And while it unquestionably levels the burden amongst all property owners to have the cost of a town-wide expansion of the sewer system put on the tax base rather than carried by betterments to those immediately affected, I cannot get past the fact that this is not fair.

After all, it is clear that those who benefit the most will be those with the highest assessments. Even the Chronicle, years ago, questioned whether year-round moderate income families from inlands West and South Chatham should subsidize the often-absentee owners of waterfront homes on the Mill Pond and Stage Harbor.

I would tend to agree. I live on the Oyster Pond, and I don't feel it is fair. It might be an equitable spreading of the burden, but not an equitable benefit to all.

To those who say these issues have already been settled at town meeting, I would answer that rarely is anything ever settled at town meeting. How many times has our local legislative body of 500-800 voted one way, only to come back a year or two later and reverse itself on issues of great interest to the town? Of great interest and clarity, I should add. More importantly, simply because an issue may pass at town meeting, either by majority or even two-thirds, does not mean those not sure have been convinced.

On the issue of clean water, it is clear that people are overwhelmingly for it. But what is also clear, whether wastewater and health officials want to admit it or not, is that voters are not clear on what they are often being asked to support. A hundred meetings could have been held on this issue. A thousand more could be. But even if this were the most electrifying issue, voters could turn to the evolving standards and technology and wonder if whatever solution being floated is the right one. Add in the whopping cost of the project - hundreds of millions of dollars for a town with a budget one-tenth the price tag - and yes, people are going to pause, and pause again.

As for me, even with the motivation to understand, if not the time to become involved, I do remain unconvinced. Perhaps this is my libertarian streak, showing a distrust for any centralized system that seems to come straight out of the early twentieth century.

Perhaps it is that, as a parent, I have experience with starting some activity that seems to be a good idea, say like skating. Then there are the add-ons. Then the revelations of more of a commitment of time. Then the surprises that, because things are going so well that there's a possibility of going even further... and before I know it, I've bought into a major commitment, and all the time being told we have to. I do support the skating, but I need to know the full extent up front.

That may suggest a lack of faith in public officials and their judgment. I find that credibility is in inverse proportion to cost. As a corollary, the larger the price of a budget item, the easier it passes - meanwhile an absurd amount of resistance can occur on items of the smallest cost. Perhaps this has to do with numbers voters can relate to. This phenomenon seems to be a town meeting-specific phenomenon, which may explain why the public's appetite changes once they get home and think about all those zeroes.

So there's that uneasy feeling that the wastewater solution has been drawn out to make it more palatable.

Then I still come back to the question I posed as a selectman and water and sewer commissioner to the board of health in a public meeting. In some communities where water is just, if not more, precious, homeowners are required to maintain tight tanks. There is no leaching of nitrogen or any other chemicals. Instead, these tanks are pumped when they are full. Was this ever considered?

This question was posed nine years ago. I never got an answer. We are told that the problem of coastal pollution is reaching emergency proportions, and that the Conservation Law Foundation is hovering, just waiting to file a lawsuit against the community that fails to act quickly and decisively. Yet the one solution that could easily and immediately address the flow of pollutants into the ground hasn't been implemented. We know who is contributing most to the problem. Why aren't we shutting off the tap of sewage first?

That would be expensive, of course. It would also affect, on the whole, a smaller but more wealthy and influential group of individuals. That is a cynical assessment, but from my experience on the chief policy board of Chatham - the board of selectmen - has merit.

Like the regular people of Chatham, I want to do right. But until I understand why this top-down approach, that benefits one group more than others, is the best fit, I remain unconvinced.

Read this and Andy's other columns at The Cape Cod Chronicle.

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