October 28, 2003

PI project speeds toward Statehouse approval

By Meredith Warren

Staff writer

BOSTON - A controversial bill extending water and sewer services to Plum Island is expected to pass the House and Senate Thursday on its way to what its backers hope will be a speedy final approval by Gov. Mitt Romney.

The bill signing is one of the major hurdles to be crossed before breaking ground on the $22.9 million project.

Lawmakers have been rushing to get the bill signed by Romney before a Nov. 6 deadline when Newburyport is scheduled to make its first $40,000 principal payment on the project. The legislation would postpone that payment for several years until the project is nearly finished and residents are paying the city for the betterments.

The bill - which was filed by state Rep. Harriett Stanley, D-West Newbury, and state Sen. Bruce E. Tarr, R-Gloucester - would require all island residents to connect to the water and sewer service. It would also require islanders to pay a betterment fee, which has been estimated at about $19,000 per home.

Plum Island Project Coordinator George Gustafson said passage of the bill would represent "another major milestone in moving ahead with the project."

The next hurdle for project planners is a November hearing before the Department of Environmental Protection on whether to pull back a permit already granted to the water and sewer project, Gustafson said. Opponents, who have raised numerous concerns about the project -- ranging from the Newburyport sewer plant's ability to handle the extra flow to worries about the veracity of studies used to justify the project -- have appealed the permit.

Yesterday, Newburyport Mayor Alan Lavender and local lawmakers including state Rep. Michael A. Costello, D-Newburyport, called Romney's office to urge quick passage of the bill.

"If we can get this out by Thursday, then we've done our job and it's up to the governor whether he wants to sign or not," Costello said.

Costello said the governor has not given any indication when or if he plans to sign the bill. But he said Romney "would be hard-pressed" not to approve a bill that has the support of every lawmaker whose district includes Plum Island. In an interview with The Daily News earlier this summer, Romney said he was unfamiliar with the project.

The Plum Island project is intended to remedy Newbury and Newburyport's non-compliance with state septic system regulations known as Title 5.

The communities entered into an agreement with the state Department of Environmental Protection two years ago to bring water and sewer service to the island from Newburyport. The project would be financed by betterment charges on the island's 1,200 properties.

Project opponents have argued that the legislation squelches the rights of Plum Island residents, while forcing islanders to pay for connecting to a new water and sewer system even though they have already spent thousands of dollars to install their own private systems.


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