In a small community center in the Sound View neighborhood of Old Lyme, four homeowners gather at a folding table with stacks of documents they have compiled over several years. They are working to combat a large infrastructure plan by the Old Lyme Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA) to install sewers in their neighborhood after the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) issued an administrative order reporting that residents’ septic systems may be polluting groundwater and the Long Island Sound.
Frank Pappalardo, Dennis Meluzzo and Mary Daley are the co-chairs and secretary of the Soundview Sewer Coalition, an LLC they formed with other neighborhood residents like John Grande to push back against the existing sewer plan. So far their work has included hiring an attorney, contracting a property appraisal company to provide an analysis and preparing, if need be, to file a lawsuit.
The group’s opposition to Old Lyme’s sewer plan is less about the typical NIMBY-ism one often sees in Connecticut towns – admittedly they thought the sewer idea to be a good one at first – and more about how the costs of the project are being allocated, whether there may be less costly alternatives and, finally, whether they are truly polluting the area at all.
Wrapped up in the politics of this issue are land and property deals by WPCA members in Old Lyme and in surrounding beach associations. Reviews of these deals and a closer look at which town areas have been added or removed from the sewer plan have left the Sound View coalition suspicious there may be ulterior motives at play.
Questions raised by the Sound View Sewer Coalition, and their efforts to get answers, have put them at odds with Old Lyme’s WPCA and with the surrounding municipal associations’ independent WPCAs. Now, the coalition feels they are being ignored by town officials hellbent on seeing this project through, no matter what.
“We’ve been immersed in this thing for a number of years,” Pappalardo said. “Our approach here is not that we’re against everything, our approach here is let’s figure out the best thing to do. Let’s figure out what the problem is, if we have a problem. Now let’s figure out the best way to solve that problem.”
“We’re not engineers, but we’ve hired some and we’ve become very adept at some of these things just by being immersed in it,” Papparlardo continued. “We’re just saying let’s sit down and talk about this and figure out the best way to handle this, but our WPCA is just on a track and they’re refusing to move off that track and when you start to look at some of the personal dynamics involved here, it starts to make a little more sense.”
Until recently, Old Lyme had a sewer avoidance policy, meaning the houses in Sound View and other coastline neighborhoods in Old Lyme have septic systems.
DEEP’s concern, voiced in the aforementioned administrative order, had largely been based on the tiny lot size of the properties along Old Lyme’s coastline, the soil conditions, and testing results that showed elevated bacteria in the groundwater. In response to the administrative order, Old Lyme hired an engineering firm to look at the issue and determine possible solutions. The most cost-effective solution, they determined, was to install sewer lines in the coastline communities, which would then pump sewage up to New London’s waste treatment facility.
The cost of installing a sewer system in the Sound View neighborhood alone was estimated at $9.5 million and in 2019 Old Lyme held a town-wide referendum to authorize funds for the sewer project.
The ballot measure put to Old Lyme passed 883 to 565, and there may be a good reason for that: only the residents of Sound View are on the hook to pay for it. The project will cost each property owner tens of thousands of dollars in up-front and long-term costs through property assessments.
According to a Q&A posted by the Old Lyme WPCA, the whole town should not bear the cost of the sewer project because only Sound View and the neighboring beach associations will benefit, but it was also a matter of getting the referendum passed.
“Multiple Town agencies strongly believe that levying the cost across all households in the Town of Old Lyme would cause the referendum to fail. Many residents at the WPCA information meetings suggesting this method also agreed the referendum would fail,” the WPCA wrote. “To put forth a referendum that is believed to fail, is inappropriate and irresponsible use of town resources.”
The overall project costs across Sound View and neighboring beach associations have risen by roughly 30 percent since 2019, now topping out at $55 million after the COVID-19 pandemic created supply-chain problems and price increases. The longer the project is delayed the more likely prices could increase in the future, and that could lead to the project being tabled.
“It’s way more expensive than it should be because of COVID and supply disruption,” said Old Lyme WPCA Chairman Richard Prendergast. “I can’t understand the other reasons why, but if it becomes too expensive, it gets to the point where it’s just not reasonable. We need more financial help and, unfortunately, we hear about all this financial aid going to everybody and building infrastructure and we just don’t seem to qualify.”
Now, adding to the conflict, Prendergast and the beach association WPCAs are facing residents who feel it is already too expensive and want to look for other options.
Sound View is probably not what one would imagine when thinking of a shoreline community: this is not the rich and powerful one percent of Connecticut’s Gold Coast. Sound View itself is made up of only three streets running from Route 156 to Sound View Beach, one of the only truly public beaches in Old Lyme.
The 229 houses and commercial properties in Sound View are small, situated on fractions of an acre, and many are merely summer homes that have been passed down over multiple generations, including Pappalardo’s home, which was initially owned by his grandparents and which he plans to pass on to his son. He lives there only during the summer months. There are a few dilapidated commercial buildings that appear abandoned, although the coalition members say they are still owned.
“This community is working class, graying people who have bought their properties planning to retire here,” says Mary Daley, who only resides at her Old Lyme home on the weekends. “That is what the community has become. The rest of the town thinks we’re an old-time rowdy group and we’re not, we’re just working people.”
Sound View Beach itself is shockingly tiny, comprised of two sections of sandy beach – one about fifty feet wide and another about forty feet wide – separated by a beachside restaurant and a bar. Frankly, it’s difficult to picture enough space for even a couple large families during the summer months.
To understand the sewer fight in Sound View, one must understand not only the neighborhood but how Old Lyme’s coastline is divided between the town and multiple beach associations that act as chartered municipalities and thus have their own WPCAs, which are managed by boards of volunteers.
The Old Lyme sewer project affects five communities: Moving west to east they are Hawk’s Nest, the Miami Beach Association, Sound View, Old Colony Beach Association and Old Lyme Shores Beach Association. Both Hawk’s Nest and Sound View are considered part of Old Lyme and are regulated under Old Lyme’s WPCA.
The remaining beach associations – Miami Beach, Old Colony and Old Lyme Shores – act as independent municipal associations and thus have their own WPCAs. The beach associations have come under criticism in the past for either restricting public access to their beaches or attempting to charge fees for the public to use their beaches.
And while the lines of demarcation matter when it comes to policies in Old Lyme, they are non-existent when walking around the neighborhood: walk a few feet to the right and suddenly you are no longer in Sound View and are now in Miami Beach.
These are not large tracts of land occupied by large houses filled with rich people – and that is part of the problem, for Sound View at least, because the $9.4 million in estimated costs for installing sewer lines in Sound View will be divided among the people who live there and a smaller neighborhood just across route 156, called Miscellaneous Area B.
Area B is set alongside train tracks where a train runs by nearly once an hour, including over the course of Connecticut Inside Investigator’s interview and walk through the area. Once again, they are small, working-class houses.
The project cost will be recouped by the town by levying an assessment on each dwelling unit over the course of 20 years. According to an August 2022 presentation by the Old Lyme WPCA, the projected cost for each property owner in Soundview and Area B is $42,800, which would be paid off by a yearly assessment of $2,140 over 20 years.
“Based on their equations, there’s no typical homeowner, unfortunately, and they don’t distinguish between full-time residential, part-time and commercial at this point,” Daley said.
But that is not the only cost for homeowners associated with this project. The homeowners will also be responsible for retiring their current septic system and connecting to the sewer line. That will result in upfront costs ranging anywhere from $3,000 upwards of $10,000 depending on the size and scope of the work. The town, however, picks up the cost of the road repaving.
The cost assessment levied against each individual home, however, is the reason the Sound View Coalition has hired an attorney and threatened to file suit if the project moves forward. That’s because Connecticut state statute limits the assessment a WPCA can place on a property to how much that new benefit increases the property value.
The Sound View Coalition hired a property appraisal firm to estimate how much a sewer system would increase property values in Sound View. The appraisal, prepared by Marc P. Nadeau in 2020, found a sewer system would increase residential property values by roughly 7 percent and commercial properties by 10 percent.
According to Nadeau’s report, the average residential property in Sound View was going for $348,940; a 7 percent increase in value from sewer installation would equate to $24,425 – almost half the WPCA’s estimated assessment on Sound View properties.
In June 2020, the Sound View Coalition’s attorney sent a letter to Prendergast warning the rest of Old Lyme’s taxpayers will have to pick up the tab for the sewer installation and legal costs if they move forward.
“If the WPCA continues to press an obvious plan to distribute the cost of the sewering program onto my clients’ neighborhood in a disproportionate fashion, legal action is likely to follow,” wrote attorney Keith R. Ainsworth. “Old Lyme’s citizens might be unpleasantly surprised when they find they have to bear not only their fair share of the sewers that solve an order served on the town, but also that they have to bear the legal costs as well.”
The Coalition says their appraiser’s report and attorney letter were not well-received by the WPCA; the board argued the appraisal was biased and their attorney not well versed in the law.
“Look, we don’t want to sue anybody, we’re not lawsuit-happy,” Pappalardo says. “Unfortunately, the only people who make out there are the lawyers, and I’m on the town commission, I know these people up there, and it’s an uncomfortable situation for me and it’s an uncomfortable situation for many other people.”
Prendergast says the lawsuit threat (and it’s not the only one, more on that later) is premature because the cost of the project remains in question. He also points to a sewer project in nearby Point of Woods that he says increased property values by 20 percent. Sound View Coalition’s assessment pegged the benefit at 10 percent.
“We have estimates, and in my view, my opinion, we’re not going to go forward with the project if it’s too expensive,” Prendergast said. “Now, an individual might say it’s too expensive and they have the right to appeal. A judge would then decide does their property benefit more or less than what’s been assessed to them, and they’ll have their expert, and we’ll have our expert. They’ve presented in one case that their expert said there’s going to be 5-7 percent benefit and other experts have said that it’s a lot more.”
Old Lyme has attempted to reduce the overall cost of the project, hopeful that Sen. Richard Blumenthal would be able to secure $11 million in federal funds for the project, which would basically bring the project back down to its original estimated cost. However, Congress didn’t approve the funding.
The WPCA also hopes to secure Clean Water grant funds from the Connecticut DEEP to reduce the cost by 25 percent, but they have to show forward movement on the project first.
The assessments for the neighboring beach associations are more expensive, with residents in Old Lyme Shores seeing the highest cost assessment of $74,600, or $3,730 over 20 years, according to Old Lyme WPCA’s presentation, plus the additional costs of connecting to the sewer line and those rising costs could throw a wrench in the project if beach associations start backing out.
And for the beach associations in particular, time is of the essence. The chartered associations borrowed money from the state for the project and were supposed to start repaying that loan in 2023, although they received a one-year deferment. Nevertheless, the bill will eventually come due and without the sewer lines, the beach communities will have little to show for it.
“It seems like Old Colony and Sound View could go forward because they’re at their original budget, more expensive than we thought but still reasonable,” Prendergast said. “Old Lyme Shores and Miami are way more expensive.”
“The problem with two of the neighborhoods who can do it and two who can’t is we’re all relying on each other, sharing the pump house and the pump house, unfortunately, doesn’t get cheaper if only half the project uses it,” Prendergast said.
Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, says he is working with Department of Revenue Services Commissioner Mark Boughton to get infrastructure funding for the project to hopefully lower the costs.
“This project is a wonderful candidate for that infrastructure money, so I’m hopeful we can do something with that. I think that may bleed into the next session before that actually happens,” Formica said. “But if we get that infrastructure money for which that was designed, projects like this, and Commissioner Boughton agrees, then that will have a positive effect on the net costs to all the residents down there who are expected to be shouldered with all these dollars that no one can really afford.”
A survey of residents taken by the Old Lyme Shores Association asked the question whether they should just walk away from the whole project, which they said would cost residents between $5,000 and $50,000 per residence in “sunk costs, future liabilities, legal fees, etc.” – a cost range that was critiqued by many commenters as too broad.
However, 66 percent of those surveyed in that association said the project should move forward provided they control the costs. Nearly 25 percent wanted to walk away.
The root cause of the sewer fight in Old Lyme is based on DEEP’s concern that the postage-stamp-sized real estate parcels, fit snuggly together, do not allow for enough land to adequately house a proper septic system. That, combined with soil conditions and the threat of flooding, means the status quo sewer avoidance policy in Old Lyme may have to change. Indeed, some of the houses in Sound View are using very old systems with very little wiggle room. In some cases, the septic system may be under the house itself rather than the more typical minimum of 20 feet away.
The testing of groundwater in Sound View and Hawk’s Nest, which is posted online, shows that both neighborhoods are – or at least were – experiencing higher levels of bacteria in the groundwater and it was most likely due to faulty and out-of-date septic systems.
However, the testing results are only up until 2013 and the Sound View Coalition says there should at least be another round of testing done to confirm it is a problem, particularly in light of the septic pump-out program, which has been in place for more than ten years.
“We believe the complexion has changed since the ordinance has changed, when they went to seven-year pump outs,” Dennis Maluzzo said. “All of a sudden there’s been no more testing in Sound View.”
“There’s never been individual testing,” Daley said. “So, when they say we’re polluting, well I have a one hundred by one hundred lot with a thousand-gallon tank and a leech field and one and a half bathrooms for just me and my husband. I don’t think I’m polluting. There may be pollution in some of the older lots but there’s never been individual testing, so we don’t know.”
Prendergast concedes that there has been no new testing in Sound View but says DEEP knows from the topography of the land, the density of the lots and past testing that there is a problem. Besides, the town remains under the administrative order to either study the problem or propose a solution, and, in the case of Sound View, they proposed a solution.
But for the other neighborhood under the Old Lyme WPCA’s jurisdiction, Hawk’s Nest, they took a different approach; they chose to study the problem further and retest for pollution with the idea that they might be able to cut down on the size of the project.
Part of the reasoning, Prendergast says, is the topography and density of Hawk’s Nest; some parts of the neighborhood are situated tightly together like Sound View, while other parts in the northern section have half-acre lots, suitable for a modern septic system.
The other reason for retesting Hawk’s Nest may be more political, Prendergast says. He says a major property owner in Hawk’s Nest, who owns “like 50 houses,” suggested they would file a lawsuit to stop the project, “so we separated the two projects.” That property owner, identified as the Garvin family in online meeting minutes, owns a slew of rental beach properties in Hawk’s Nest called Garvin Family Cottages.
“The way DEEP framed the administrative order and the way they discussed with us that you have a notice of nuisance by our then DPH public official, so you either have to study it or you have to fix it and if you fix it you have to come up with an approved plan to fix it,” Prendergast said. “Those are our two options, so we’re fixing Sound View and we’re studying Hawk’s Nest.”
The results of the new testing in Hawk’s Nest have yet to be produced, but the Garvins took it upon themselves to hire Geomatrix, LLC, a waste management service out of Old Saybrook, to do its own testing of nitrogen and nitrate levels in the ground water of Hawk’s Nest.
Environmental scientist Sara Wigginton, Ph.D. wrote the report indicating no elevated levels of either total nitrogen or nitrate. “In addition to the low nitrogen values observed in groundwater monitoring wells, Hawk’s Nest is likely producing a much smaller annual nitrogen load compared to communities with longer periods of annual occupancy,” Wigginton wrote. “Seasonal homes, such as those at Hawk’s Nest Beach, generally load less nitrogen into the environment than houses occupied year-round.”
According to the official testing data from 2000 to 2013, Hawk’s Nest and Sound View had similar average levels of total nitrogen. While the averages were below recommended levels, there were spikes over time that surpassed safe levels in Sound View, according to the Environmental Impact Evaluation produced in 2018, which found 9 instances at different wells over the 13-15 year period.
The Sound View neighborhood is also made up of many seasonal residents, but Prendergast says the amount of time a resident spends in Sound View does not matter when it comes to pollution. “The way laws are written, and the way pollution is written, you don’t get a pass if you just pollute sometimes,” Prendergast said. “If you’re going to be reasonably known to pollute and reasonably predicted, that’s a problem. They don’t account for seasonality.”
The Sound View Coalition also presented water testing data from the Department of Public Health and the Ledge Light Health District, which monitors water quality levels along Long Island Sound, from 2017 to 2021 showing only one instance in 2020 when bacteria levels in Long Island Sound spiked over safe levels, something of an anomaly when considering how much lower the levels were every other day the water was tested that year.
They also point to Save the Sound’s 2020 annual report that gave the Eastern Basin of Long Island Sound an A rating, as it has for the last 12 years, according to the report. Sound View Beach was given an A- grade in Save the Sound’s 2021 Beach Report.
“There’s no data showing we’re polluting the Sound,” Pappalardo said. “On the contrary, we have data that shows we’re not polluting the Sound.
The Environmental Protection Agency in 2021 issued a report saying water quality in the Sound was improving significantly thanks to successful programs in Connecticut and New York to remove nitrogen through upgraded sewage treatment.
“There seems to be a lot of tests that have occurred over the years that have shown there are things that are not kosher down there,” Formica said. “Septics too close to wells and all of that. Certainly, we don’t want to be doing something we don’t need to do at a cost that’s prohibitive, but my understanding is that the people in Old Lyme have decided which of those beach associations are important to have those problems rectified and go from there.”
Prendergast says that even people who claim to have a new, engineered system are still compromised because the size of the lots are not large enough to support a septic system, but were essentially grandfathered into acceptance by the Department of Public Health.
“In most cases they don’t have enough land to have a fully compliant system,” Prendergast said. “But the Department of Health is not going to take away a person’s certificate of occupancy. That’d be a public disaster. They’re not going to kick somebody out of their house.”
The push for sewers in Old Lyme has been running for roughly ten years now and during that time areas to be included in the plan, and the plan itself, have come and gone. White Sands, where Prendergast has a home, was originally included in the plan, only to be removed because it lacked the density of Sound View and the beach associations, according to Old Lyme’s Q&A, and Hawk’s Nest was relegated for further study due to differing density, topography and political pressure.
Miscellaneous Area B was incorporated into the Sound View portion of the sewer project and although the Sound View coalition says Area B’s inclusion was unannounced, Prendergast says it was a matter of trying to limit the scope of the project, saying the original engineering report included several more areas.
“We kind of pushed back,” Prendergast said. “There are a number of properties that shouldn’t have been involved and we clawed that back. Miscellaneous Area B is the same composition as Sound View, so there’s a couple exceptions. It wasn’t able to be clawed back.” He says other areas were taken over by the beach associations, but the shifting lines are all a bit complicated.
But in this small town and even smaller beach areas, property deals made by members of the associated WPCAs have raised suspicions by those opposed to the project, and at least one aspect of the sewer project the Sound View Coalition originally liked was stripped away.
The private beach associations have bathhouses alongside their beaches with toilets and showers. Sound View, on the other hand, has a collection of port-a-potties. Under the original plan, the port-a-potties would be replaced by a bathhouse, classing up the public beach, which would also serve as the pump station sending sewage to the New London treatment facility.
However, over the course of the project planning, the bathhouse for Sound View was scrapped and the location of the pump house was moved fifty feet away to a small tract of land that was owned by Scott Boulanger, chairman of the Miami Beach WPCA. Boulanger sold the land, which received an appraisal of $15,200 in 2019, to the beach associations for $50,000 in 2021, according to property records.
Prendergast says he is unsure exactly why the location was changed – or why residents wanted a bathhouse to begin with – but says he believes the beach associations were fearful the town would pull out of the deal, “so they wanted to take it on their own and they went private land.”
The port-a-potties will remain, as Prendergast says he was informed by other WPCAs that bathhouses create more problems than they solve, with people flushing diapers and towels down the toilets.
There is also the former site of KiddieLand, once an attraction for youth in Sound View, which is now a vacant lot. The property was purchased in 2013 by Frank Noe, chairman of the Old Colony WPCA, and is now under the ownership of his company OL Properties, LLC.
According to the Old Lyme WPCA’s meeting minutes from July 14, 2015, during public comment Noe said, “He can’t do anything with that property without sewers.”
“According to zoning, if this property were to burn down, he would have 1 year to rebuild, but if tears down on his own, he is not allowed to rebuild at all,” the minutes say. “He needs sewers to clean it up, clean up the street. He urged the town to move forward with compliance.”
Naturally, this leads those opposed to the project to believe there are ulterior motives in the WPCAs’ push for sewers and the accusations in town have apparently gotten under the skin of some officials. In a Q&A posted online by the Miami Beach Association, there was this question:
Q: Correct me if I’m wrong, it is my understanding that you (Frank Noe) are in the process of putting up condos in Sound View and it would be in the best interest for you if this project continues. Shouldn’t you have disqualified yourself on the sewer project because this could be seen as a conflict of interest?
A: You are wrong.
But Noe is not alone being stuck in limbo when it comes to properties in Sound View and all the neighboring beach associations.
There are several dilapidated-looking properties in Sound View and owners would be unwise to rebuild or refurbish them until the sewer question is settled: no one is going to construct a new building with a septic system if they’re just going to be forced to abandon the septic and connect to a sewer system with a $42,000 assessment on the property.
It’s not that Noe has a financial interest in the project, it’s that everyone does – whether for or against it – including residents who may have outdated septics, and no one can do virtually anything with their property until the matter is resolved one way or the other.
“It’s been over ten years now,” Daley says. “There are many homeowners in this area who want to upgrade their systems, but they won’t upgrade their own systems and spend ten or fifteen thousand dollars to do so if over your head is a bill of thirty, forty thousand dollars and you’ll have to pull it out. So, the ten-year delay in this project is contributing if there is pollution here.”
“Without that infrastructure money, there’s going to be time-lapse,” Formica said. “People are going to wait, they’re not going to pull the trigger on this kind of dollar, otherwise you’re going to drive people out of their homes.”
The three beach associations in Old Lyme remain under a consent agreement, while the town of Old Lyme remains under an administrative agreement that Prendergast says functions like a consent agreement because the town didn’t object, but the reality is that for the project to move forward, the costs have to be within reason and that possibility appears to grow dimmer as time goes on.
“I know that the beach association leadership down there all worked very hard on this project and Old Lyme has certainly changed from one that was sewer avoidance 20 years ago to being a community that’s proactive and looking to solve some of these problems,” Formica continued.
The members of the Sound View Coalition say they want more confirmation that there is a problem with pollution to begin with and, if there is, want alternatives explored, including testing individual lots to see where the septic problems may lie and if they can be remediated, before moving ahead with the sewer project. In effect, they want further study, similar to what’s taking place at Hawk’s Nest.
“If there’s a problem, if someone’s septic system is failing, lets figure out how to fix that septic system with new alternative technology and utilize Clean Water Funds, which are acceptable to be used in that technology,” Frank said. “It may be ten houses, not a hundred or two hundred. So, let’s look at this thing in a more individualized basis that makes more sense.”
According to a presentation by all of the WPCAs, the idea of upgrading septic systems or installing advanced treatment systems on each lot was rejected because of excessive costs for design, installation and maintenance, as well as the fact that many systems would still be in a flood zone.
Furthermore, they argue, such measures would merely “kick the can down the road and will ultimately require reckoning.”
Nearby, the town of Old Saybrook faced a similar problem. The town had operated under a sewer avoidance policy for many years until DEEP determined that groundwater was being polluted by septic systems.
Rather than install sewers at a cost of $70 million, however, the town opted for upgrading residents’ septic systems using a combination of grant money and residents paying for the remaining half. The first phase of the project was completed in 2018, but the second phase to upgrade roughly 750 septic systems in the coastal neighborhoods has proven more difficult.
According to the Miami Beach Association’s Q&A, 700 houses in Old Saybrook have not been able to get approval for an onsite system and are looking for alternatives acceptable to DEEP. Plus, some of the engineered systems can be quite expensive.
But with costs for at least two beach associations – Miami and Old Lyme Shores – reaching high estimates in the wake of COVID, whether the Old Lyme sewer project moves forward remains in doubt. If the town backs out, or any of the associations, it could have a domino effect, and officials are looking anywhere and everywhere for financial support to see it through and reduce the cost for individual homeowners.
“The first thing we have to do is wait until things settle down and then try to get another quote to do it,” Formica said. “Prices were exorbitant, now they’re high. Hopefully, they’ll continue that trend if the economy takes a positive turn and doesn’t sink deeply into a recession. Hopefully, we’ll be able to keep these projects going.”
Brian Cornell, a seasonal resident of Miscellaneous Area B, says he thinks the project will cost him even more than estimated. Either way, it’s just money he doesn’t have.
“We don’t know exactly what it’s going to be because we can’t get any bottom, solid numbers. The answer we always get from the WPCA is we don’t know the cost of the project is going to be until we’re done,” Cornell said. “Unfortunately, it’s a burden that’s going to go on a lot of people down here if the whole thing goes through, and I don’t have forty thousand dollars lying around.”