Awash in complaints, town revisits stormwater loans

By Jess Wisloski

Observer staff

Town administrators have changed their tune on allowing homeowners’ associations to use funds from a state-run program after several residents aired their frustrations at a meeting last week about the mounting costs of carrying out stormwater management requirements for their neighborhoods.

At a phone conference on Tuesday afternoon, the town manager, public works director and stormwater coordinator spoke with an Agency of Natural Resources official at the state to discuss some of the potential benefits and drawbacks to the town taking out a bond with the state to pay for outstanding stormwater mitigation projects that would impact neighborhoods in Williston.

The federal money, available through the the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, could help homeowners associations (HOAs) representing 18 Williston neighborhoods pay for the roughly $1.7 million in improvements that are required by the state’s new stormwater regulations. About 971 homes are affected by the changes.

Terisa Thomas, an environmental coordinator for the program, said that the fund had been in use for about a decade to help cover stormwater improvement costs, and while the agency hadn’t in the past worked on projects designed specifically for neighborhoods within towns that used the fund, it might be a solution for some of the higher-cost mitigation projects that Williston homeowners are facing.

“Doing an arrangement like that which is proposed is not that common,” said Thomas, speaking to Town Manager Richard McGuire, Public Works Director Bruce Hoar and Stormwater Coordinator James Sherrad. “We’ve only done it a couple of times and those have been things like mobile home parks; utilizing stormwater revolving funds like this would be relatively new,” she said.

However, because the town already had placed the 18 projects proposed by the HOAs on a priority list for the fund, if a neighborhood  wanted to enter the program, it would be in line to do so right away.

Thomas is scheduled to speak to homeowners at the Aug. 2 Selectboard meeting, and agreed to appear at another public meeting in early September. She shared with town administrators on Tuesday what points she intended to go over with the community.

“I want to be very clear at that meeting,” she said. “Yes, the State Revolving Fund has its place, but as Bruce [Hoar] knows, it’s a federal program. There are lots of hoops you have to jump through, and I’m not going to sugarcoat anything. And I realize there are some federal requirements that [will be very tough to meet] …while I know nothing is impossible, it may not be reasonable,” she said, for many neighborhoods to participate.  “Sometimes the ability to amortize the cost over a long period of time, those benefits outweigh those costs; sometimes they just don’t.”

The state program would allow HOAs to take out as much as a 30-year loan for the full cost of construction work on improvements, although the town — which is the actual borrower — would likely restrict the loan term to 20 years, or the life of the project.

One of the first thresholds, Thomas noted, was that all the engineering reports and designs had to be made to fit the standard federal model — a step that would likely cost HOAs additional money.

“For example, a preliminary engineering report, that has to be in our format; that’s the same format USDA would use, so the preliminary engineering report may need to be juggernauted to fit into the State Revolving Fund format. So there may be trying to format what existing work has already been done and all the final design work has to be approved by the State Revolving Fund program.”

“There does have to be an environmental approval, there does have to be an approval of the final design and there may be amendments that would need to be made to the final design,” she added.

Costs for retrofitting work that had already been done by HOAs might be covered by a subsidy, however, and she said state engineers may be able to do preliminary reviews of neighborhood’s plans to determine how far off their designs were from being able to efficiently take advantage of the program immediately.

McGuire said the town may now offer access to the program to HOAs, if they wish to participate and are found eligible. The program offers loans that cover 100 percent of the project costs, as opposed to the 50 or 60 percent the town had proposed to cover through a capital fund.

This was a change from the town’s previous stance that the State Revolving Fund’s timeline for providing funds, and the hoops that were required for the federal dollars, were less beneficial to the town than using Williston’s stormwater capital fund to create partial loans for the neighborhoods’ projects. The capital funds are collected from a stormwater fee that was implemented in early 2015. The local fund has collected about $450,000 so far. A town-wide vote would need to take place to authorize the use of the state fund, and deadlines the town had been trying to meet would likely be missed, administrators said.

Terri Zittritsch, Vice President of the Heritage Meadows homeowners’ association, said what irks her still is that the neighborhoods weren’t presented with the federal funds as an option back when the town approached them about helping the HOAs pay for the work.

“It just boggles my mind — we should have been shown it, instead of the town working through their own proposal,” she said, referring to the town’s own loan program, which was originally presented as having only enough funds to cover a partial loan for the neighborhoods’ costs — and that it couldn’t cover all the neighborhoods either, she said.

McGuire said that the reason for the state loan never having been offered was not that the town hadn’t planned to use it — simply that the Selectboard had never made a final decision on how the town stormwater loan would be funded.

“If you go back to my April 14, 2016 memo  (included in the agenda packet for the April 19, 2016 Selectboard meeting) or other versions of this outline, it’s always talked about two different options of funding this,” he said. “The Selectboard has never made a decision on this. It’s a discussion we have to have. And we’re having it now.”