CHELMSFORD — In light of a recent study that showed the town was nearing its sewer capacity, the Department of Public Works has instituted what is being called a “soft” moratorium on new sewer connections and changes to sewer regulations.

The moratorium went into effect Tuesday and will remain in place through October 31, 2021.

“There shall be no connection of any changed property, expanding property, high volume unconnected property, high volume expansion or any property requiring a private sewer extension, to the public sewer during the effective period of this article,” the moratorium states, noting exemptions would only be granted in cases deemed necessary to protect public health.

Assistant Director of Public Works Steve Jahnle, who called it a soft moratorium, said it includes provisions for anybody in the process of receiving special permits, Planning Board and other approvals.

“It does allow for projects that are permitted, or currently under construction to continue, and smaller single-family home additions will be allowed,” Jahnle said, giving the example of a one-bedroom in-law addition.

The moratorium does not apply to projects on existing unconnected lots that have been granted or already applied for a special permit, site plan approval or determination of applicability under town zoning bylaws. It also does not apply to  unconnected single-family or two-family lots legally created before Sept. 15

It does apply to newly created lots and most unconnected commercially or industrially zoned lots.

The moratorium comes in response to a recent wastewater flow analysis by Weston & Sampson that showed that the town, with existing sewer connections and already permitted projects, is at its maximum sewer capacity as allowed through its agreement with the Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility.

Fall Town Meeting will also take up two items related to the sewer issues: a request to use $150,000 of sewer funds for a full sewer capacity study and an article to amend the connection to sewer general bylaw to allow for on-site wastewater treatment plants and private residential septic systems.

Jahnle and Town Counsel Paul Haverty said the year-plus moratorium will give the town a chance to conduct the studies to determine alternatives, such as further bylaw revisions, and whatever other changes will be needed in response to the sewer capacity issue.

Town Manager Paul Cohen said he heard Monday evening from Tyngsboro’s sewer consultant, Woodward & Curran, that the Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility is interested and willing to meet with member towns to discuss capacity and permitting issues with the plant. He said he hopes that meeting can occur as soon as possible in order to gain a better understanding of the needs and available options, such as a possible expansion of the plant or other modifications that can be made in order to provide additional capacity. Cohen said he has also reached out to the other municipalities that send wastewater to the facility to request data on sewer flow.

Chelmsford’s annual sewer bills issued during the past five fiscal years suggest there has been a 36% increase in sewer flow at the plant during the period of fiscal 2015 to fiscal 2019, compared to the 17.5% increase in Chelmford’s flow during the same period, Cohen said. He said he hopes to get clarification on the data.

Cohen said he was aware the Board of Health was calling for a hard moratorium that would not allow any new sewer connections or activity for one year. In a letter to the Select Board, the Board of Health also expressed its opposition to allowing septic systems again but that it did support onsite water treatment plants for commercial properties, apartment and condominium complexes.

“The concern I have is, I don’t want put the town in a legal situation where a hard moratorium could be seen as a taking of property and invite litigation on the town of Chelmsford,” Cohen said.

Haverty agreed. He said having a complete moratorium and not allowing property owners to address wastewater through septic systems or onsite treatment facilities would require a zoning freeze approved by Town Meeting with a two-thirds vote.

Haverty said his interpretation of existing sewer bylaws and regulations is that where a sewer connection is not available within a certain distance, there is no requirement to tie into the public sewer system, thereby making septic systems allowed when there is no ability to connect to the sewer.

In redrafting the provision, he said it makes it clear that in circumstances where a property owner puts in a septic system or wastewater treatment facility, they will not be required to remove it should additional sewer capacity become available in the future.

“I don’t think the town has the authority to both prohibit connections to the sewer system and prohibit use of onsite septic or wastewater treatment facilities,” Haverty said. “It has to be one or the other.”

He said the Board of Health would retain its discretion to require a connection to the town sewer if a connection is available and it is determined to be in the best interest of the town for health reasons.

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