By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.
GOLDEN TOWNSHIP – A proposed $23.8 million public sewer project that was developed by township officials to protect Silver Lake water quality was unanimously voted down by the Golden Township Board Tuesday evening, May 14, due to strong public opposition from residents in the summer tourist community.
The plan was to construct a new sanitary sewer system to replace on-site septic systems for homes and businesses around the lake.
The $23.8 million sewer system would have included underground pipes, updated septic tank effluent pump (STEP) systems for each piece of property in the service district, and a wastewater treatment facility.
Construction would have begun in 2020 and was slated for completion by 2021, according to a preliminary engineering report drafted by Fleis & Vandenbrink, an engineering firm hired by Golden Township to coordinate the project.
The five-member township board voted first to pay the engineering firm the balance of its contract, which was $29,000, said township Supervisor Carl Fuehring. Then, it voted to terminate the project. “It was a very tough decision,” Fuehring said.
The township was approved for a $23.8 million US Department of Agriculture loan to pay for the project pending a decision from the board to go ahead with the project.
“It’s an unfortunate situation due to the grant and the need for the project,” said Fuehring. “There were a lot of people in favor of it, but there was an extreme amount of pressure from people who didn’t want it. It took the starch right out of it.
“The bottom line is an overwhelming amount of people were against the cost — not against cleaning up Silver Lake. Time is gaining on us. The phosphate level is high.”
The township began exploring a new sewer system in 2017 to decrease excessive algae blooms and improve poor water quality in Silver Lake. Officials claim that the use of individual septic tanks exacerbated both issues due to “nutrient loading” – the harmful introduction of nutrients into an ecosystem via industrial or wastewater runoff.
“All sanitary waste around Silver Lake is discharged to onsite treatment systems, composed of septic tanks with drain fields, and many have aged beyond their design life,” states the Golden Township website. “Proper maintenance and/or system replacement is more difficult due to high water tables and limited available land. Due to the close proximity of the septic systems to the lake, high ground water table and highly permeable soils, nutrient loading into the lake has been an ongoing problem. Numerous studies have recommended a centralized sanitary sewer system to solve this problem. With increased growth will come increased nutrient loading to the detriment of the Silver Lake water quality. The need for a centralized collection and treatment system is great.”
Upper Silver Lake could have been connected to the sewer system during the second phase of the sewer project.
Residents opposed to the sewer project placed signs around the community. The signs say “SEWER” with a red circle and slash through the word and a stop sign shape in the background.
Opponents say water quality is an ongoing problem, citing a recent study that shows the algae blooms are starting to dissipate and that water quality improved in 2018. Several opponents say other less expensive options exist. Some residents have stated that septage runoff isn’t the problem, and poor lake management is the issue.
The residential assessment for the project was approximately $850 per year with a user charge of $30 per month, states Golden Township’s website. The commercial assessment would have been approximately $360 per year with the $30 user charge.
The township met with the USDA – Rural Development and gathered information on grant programs that are available to help low and fixed-income residents.
Now that “the people have spoken,” the ball is in their court as far as what is the next step to protect Silver Lake. Fuehring said there is a study group formed as a “grassroots” movement to find a solution to the water quality issue. “They know something needs to be done.”
“It’s sad that we gave up $23 million, but these folks will have to figure out how to do it,” he said.
Approximately 1,000 people attended a public meeting to discuss the project last month. The meeting, which included township officials, engineering experts, an academic expert and health department officials, spanned four and a half hours.
On April 15, the township mailed out 1,100 letters addressed to property owners, asking for feedback about the project. There were 635 “no” votes to 133 “yes” votes, Fuehring said, representing an 83 percent opposition.
Residents formed the Silver Lake Dunes Area Property Owners group on Facebook. The group of 1,300, collected donations to retain an attorney if the township decided to go ahead with the project.
“We dealt with this for two years, spending thousands of hours on it,” Feuhring said. The township went through a similar process approximately 15 years ago, he said, and like this time around, the “people revolted.”
In addition to Fuehring, the township board includes Clerk Rachel Iteen, Treasurer Connie Cargill, Trustee Dick Walsworth and Trustee Gary Beggs.
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