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Friday, December 16, 2005

Human Ecology

And it shall be, when thou wilt ease thyself abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee:
Deuteronomy: Ch. 23, Verse 13 - World's Oldest Septic Regulation

If you live in a sandbox, it makes sense that wastewater handling will be the next big thing. For those who don’t know the difference between grey and black water, you are about to learn, and it will cost you money.

For year, Cape Cod towns and zoning boards unashamedly used a lack of septic capacity to stymie growth. The clever idea was that it world prevent extensive development in a limited land area. Hence the introduction of ever increasing acreage requirements, more expensive septic systems, the banning of small apartments above the shop, and so on. What these municipal gamblers never counted on is that their bluff would be called, and that people would spend what seemed like ridiculous amounts of money to be able to live here. Patti Page has a lot to answer for with that song of hers.

Now, towns are in a place where development has happened, they are approaching build out, and working people have no place to live. The construction of affordable housing may be desirable in some areas, but a far greater concern is how to treat our existing septic problems in the face of scientific advances.

There are two main schools of thought – the MWRA-type government super-entity one and the leave us the hell alone one. Both go too far towards their extreme. The County has weighed in and has created a Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative. “The new county agency will be charged with creating a regional wastewater plan, helping towns identify specific needs, and securing state and federal money to pay for fixing what is likely a multi-billion dollar problem,” according to the Cape Cod Times (a NEW COUNTY AGENCY? Grrr….). The glitch in this is that there are many lenses of water to our aquifer, and the problems east and west of the Bass River are very different, as I have written before (HERE). So how can we create a system which will respect and take into account the problem, without having some towns subsidize and bulldoze others?

We already have a model in the successful Cape Cod Open Space Acquisition Act, a.k.a. Land Bank. The original Land Bank would have given all monies to the Cape Cod Commission, to spend at their discretion (HA!). The now-former Land Bank gave the money to each town to preserve what it needed, and many towns decided operate in conjunction with one another to protect adjacent parcels that straddled town lines, especially on the Lower Cape. Why not allow a 15 town cooperative arrangement?

But where is a revenue stream to allow the solution to a “likely multi-billion problem”? The Cape Cod Business Roundtable wants to charge each residence a fee based on $20 per bedroom, which would raise $9 million per year county-wide. The problem with this is that there is no incentive to save water – a 3 bedroom home with a sprinkler system, a Jacuzzi, two dishwashers, and three bathrooms will pay the same fee as a 3 bedroom home which has no washing machine, goes to the Laundromat, and washes its own dishes in the sink. There is no apparent sunset to this plan, either.

Porcupine does not decry conditions or posit problems without providing a strategy or solution, which is why he is not a Democrat. We will turn to Harwich as an example of how this could be solved locally, without a super-agency.

Harwich recently did an extensive study, for which it deserves much praise, and concluded that their septic woes would cost several million dollars. Quite a price tag for a single town, and far too much for an annual budget. However, Harwich also had 17,204 cars with a valuation of $84,815,390 which brought in $1,780,901 in excise tax, $1,703,213 after $77,688 in abatements were paid. A 3% surcharge on excise tax, like we paid for the land bank, would create annual revenue of $51,096.39. Wouldn’t that make the at least part of payments on a 40 year bond for the millions? That would be in addition to any betterment charges or water fees the town would collect. If you are a homeowner, compare a 3% - or even 5% - surcharge on your auto excise with a $20 fee for each bedroom.

The beauty of it is, there is no need for additional bureaucracy. The excise tax structure is in place, right down to Registry of Motor Vehicle enforcement for non-payment. While a person can be ‘house rich’, they are seldom ‘car rich’. In fact, the kind of car you drive, be it a Lexus or a rusty Delta 88, is probably the best indicator of actual ability to afford a tax. Also, most solutions rely too heavily on property owners, who already foot the bill for services. With this, businesses, renters and homeowners would each pay a fair – and more affordable – share.

Best of all, it leaves Boston and Barnstable County out of the financial loop. These excise tax funds are paid to and retained by the individual towns. If Harwich and Brewster wanted to work on a collaborative treatment system, great. If Dennis wanted to use it to extend sewer lines, fine. If Wellfleet wanted to use it to install town water and protect individual wells from pollution by adjacent septic systems, wonderful! If the state or county wants to apply for grants or award money, the towns will have a pool of matching funds if they choose to participate – or, they can indeed tell the county to leave them the hell alone, although it is less likely in a scenario where they are not coerced.

Let’s keep our government smaller, and our environment cleaner. We can do both.


Blogger Beth said...

This makes 2 people from Massachuetts that I know who are not democrats.

2:41 AM  
Blogger Doug said...


12:28 PM  

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