Is Lansing’s wastewater management plan smart?

Lansing (town), NY is located just north of Ithaca in Tompkins County and borders the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake. The Town of Lansing, NY is considering a proposal to replace septic systems with a sewered connection to a new centralized wastewater treatment plant. The proposed treatment plant would be built on land donated by local employer Cargill, Inc. The plant would have a capacity of 150,000 gallons per day (0.15 MGD), and along with the collection system is estimated to cost $10.2 million. The plant is part of a larger plan to create a new sewer district, and build a town center with housing, businesses and recreation. In addition, this proposal is a response to the 2 failing septic systems in the Lansing School District.

The Town of Lansing has provided details of the proposal on its website. The proposal argues that development in the town center would attract businesses and real estate, and raise revenue for the town. Cost comparisons (questionable to some extent) provided by the Town show that the replacement of septic systems with sewered connections at the Lansing School District will not lead to any additional costs over a 15 year period (when the standard procedure is to use a 30-year life cycle). In addition, it is estimated that revenue from enhanced real estate values will bring in an additional $3 million to the School District during the same 15-year period. The Town has submitted a grant proposal to the Southern Tier Economic Development Council for $3 million. A financing request to the Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC), the state’s public financing body was turned down. Sending its wastewater to the nearby Cayuga Heights Treatment Plant was an option, but looks like the Town wanted its own treatment facility.

The proposed Lansing treatment plant will be one of many small centralized treatment plants currently operational in New York. Research at WRI shows that 28% of the public treatment plants in New York are smaller than 0.1 MGD. Small plants tend to have higher effluent violations, are more expensive to operate (on a per-volume basis) and cost a lot of money for small communities that don’t have either an exceptionally strong bond rating or a wide tax base. Instead, well-managed decentralized systems (ranging from basic septic tank-leach fields to sand filters and everything in between) can be an effective wastewater management plan for small communities. They may also satisfy the state’s new smart growth initiative. We are currently doing some work to identify conditions that make decentralized options viable for small communities.

Some Lansing residents are not too happy with this proposal. One such resident is Dr. Larry Cathles, Professor of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell. He writes,

Many would be happy if the Town of Lansing developed in European style as a charming Village surrounded by farmland and trails.  Few would be happy if the southern portion of the Town of Lansing developed in an uninterrupted Los Angeles style sprawl of shops, houses, gas stations and roads.

We are not in a race, and there is no urgency to act quickly.  We have only one chance to get this planning right.   A few years of planning can produce decades of town pride.  Proceeding without a development roadmap and control strategy is likely to produce a suburban sprawl in which any Town Center is accidental and unremarkable.

He has developed an itemized list of various facts about the proposal and his own thoughts. Read the whole document here.

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