October 15, 2003


Favorable vote expected to push PI legislation


Staff Writer

PLUM ISLAND -- After an emotional and long public hearing last week on the Plum Island water and sewer project's legislation, the state's Joint Committee on Local Affairs and Regional Government voted unanimously in favor of the legislation yesterday. The favorable vote could now propel the legislation favorably through the House and Senate.

"It's very good news for proponents of the project," said state Rep. Michael Costello. "It was a very long and sometimes emotional hearing. I have to give credit to both sides of the issue. In the end, I think all the members were convinced, after hearing testimony, that the right thing to do was to move forward on the project that provides clean water and sanitary conditions to Massachusetts residents."

The public hearing attracted dozens of residents to speak about the project, some bringing emotional testimony about their babies bathing in brown water. The hearing lasted almost six hours. The legislation for the Plum Island project, which would extend water and sewer lines to the island, is a requirement of the Administrative Consent Order (ACO) between the communities of Newbury and Newburyport and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The project is intended to remedy non-compliance with state septic system regulations known as Title 5. Newburyport and Newbury entered into an agreement with the state Department of Environmental Protection two years ago to bring water and sewer service to the island. Newburyport's water and sewer services would be extended at an estimated cost of $22.9 million. The project would be financed by betterment charges on the island's approximately 1,200 properties, costing each household about $20,000.

With the committee's favorable vote, state officials anticipate the legislation to move quickly over the next few weeks.

The race is on to get the legislation passed before November, when Newburyport and Newbury would be expected to pay principal on the $940,000 bond anticipation note.

If the legislation passes, both communities could put off paying the bond anticipation note.

Costello said the favorable vote of the committee will only help the process.

"It's very unusual that a favorable would go down on a full house vote," Costello said. "Normally it can be moved through informal or formal sessions. In this case, we are going to seek to move the bill through extremely quickly."

Costello said no date has been set yet for the bill to go before the house, although he said it could be as early as tomorrow.

If passed by the Legislature, the enabling legislation or House Bill 4070, once known as the "special legislation," would give the city and town authority to mandate that island residents connect to water and sewer service. The legislation would also mandate that islanders pay a betterment fee and conform to building restrictions outlined in the Plum Island Overlay District zoning law that was passed last year. In addition, the act would allow the city to accept as public any roads on the island that need to be improved for the installation of sewer and water infrastructure.

"It's another step forward toward the eventual construction of the project," said Plum Island Project Coordinator George Gustafson. "On behalf of the Plum Island Work Group, they are all very happy about the steps being taken."

However, not everyone was happy with the outcome of the committee's ruling.

Island Futures Group President Maria Eigerman said it was a "dark day for citizens" in the state when she got news of the committee's ruling.

"When local legislators strip citizens of their property rights -- it's very disturbing," Eigerman said, noting her disappointment with the "political bandwagon."

"As a personal observation, it strikes as deep irony that the U.S. sent troops, our children, to Iraq to guarantee Iraqi's rights, but here at home, neither the city council, nor two senators and two representatives, nor the committee on Beacon Hill chooses to defend our rights," Eigerman said. "I think that's striking."

(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)
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