2018-06-28 / Front Page

Once-sleepy Empire looks at sewer question

Public forum planned
By Alan Campbell
of the Enterprise staff

Empire, which direction are you headed?

It’s a question whose answer may be linked to the results of a comprehensive municipal sewer study that’s been out of the public spotlight since shortly after its release in April.

That doesn’t mean, however, that village residents haven’t been privately discussing the report. They’ll have an opportunity to learn about the study and speak on the record for or against construction of a municipal sewer system at a public forum that has been set for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18.

That’s right, September. But there are reasons for the delay, according to Village president Sam Barr.

The date was set to avoid Empire’s busyness during the summer yet before seasonal residents close down their homes to head to warmer climes.

Plus, he added, the later date gives residents ample opportunity to explore the study.

“It’s a fairly large document,” said Barr, who set the date for the meeting. “I thought everyone needed a chance to take it section by section.”

While some have staked future growth in the village to construction of a village-owned sewer system, Barr said such comparisons simplify reality. Most problems for wastewater treatment beset commercial, not residential, properties, he said. And a privately owned, commercial sewer system may fill that need.

Still, Barr said, most residents are willing to consider a publicly owned system.

“I can’t identify anyone who is against the sewer,” he said. “Some people are suspicious of trying to use public money to help a commercial area. Here in town that’s one of the biggest questions - putting money into a commercial area without a benefit to the residents of the community.”

Pros, volunteers tackle project

Just studying the issue has been controversial in Empire. A 35-page Wastewater Feasibility Report completed in April by Gosling Czubick Engineering had its roots in two votes made in 2016 by the Village Council. The first effort in August to allocate $9,600 for the study failed, 3-3. Council members approved the funding unanimously the following month.

Subsequently, six residents volunteered to sit on an Empire Wastewater Feasibility Committee. They were chair John Collins, a partner in a development that has been issued permits to build a private sewer system with capacity to service much of the Empire commercial district; council members Chris Frey, Soni Aylsworth and Teresa Howes; Peter Schous, who purchased an extra lot needed to build a private septic system for a 20-room hotel he’s building adjacent to the headquarters to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore; and former Empire Chamber president Paul Skinner.

The village nearly plunged into the wastewater business more than a decade ago - and might have built a municipal system if its application for a revolving loan had been approved, Skinner said.

“Personally, I felt we got turned down on a technicality,” added Skinner, explaining that a notice was not published in a timely fashion. “Immediately after getting turned down we ran into the meltdown of 2008.”

Another factor was the controversy that accompanied the collaborative municipal sewer built by Northport Village and Leelanau Township about the same time. Both governments are now pulling $60,000 annually from their general funds to make bond payments, and the township still faces a serious long-range shortfall.

Empire wastewater committee members hope village residents can reach a consensus on the sewer question before building or rejecting a system, Frey said.

“Unless there’s broad consensus, I don’t think anything should happen. The divisiveness we’ve seen in other communities would be terrible for Empire,” he said.

If nothing else, though, Frey believes the study made clear the complexities of wastewater problems facing the community.

Because those challenges are unique to properties, land owners will gauge any wastewater project - whether public or private - partly or mostly on its financial impact to them.

There’s no doubt that members of the committee were dedicated toward quantifying wastewater disposal attributes for village properties. They traveled to the two-county health department to research septic age for individual lots. Committee members and engineers from Gosling Czubak studied village wastewater use so intently that they became familiar with the attributes of most properties in the village.

For instance, some businesses such as Tiffany’s have addressed wastewater shortcomings by purchasing a neighboring lot and installing a raised field.

Meanwhile, some restaurants in the village are hooked into holding tanks, which are expensive to empty but effective in protecting the environment.

“We figured out how many don’t have records. Twenty-seven percent. We figured that out by determining if there was a septic system and researching for records. In many of those cases, they are served with a dry well,” Frey said.

The report, by the numbers

Because Empire is a long-established village with the majority of its recent growth in the New Neighborhood development, which has its own gravity fed wastewater system, some 96 out of 350 septic installations were build in the 1970s and earlier. Forty percent date back earlier than 1990.

Despite the age of those private systems, though, the study did not find a compelling need for a village-wide sewer system based on ongoing water sample testing.

“In conclusion, Empire water conditions in South Bar Lake and Lake Michigan meet required standards. There is inconclusive information on the environmental impact of individual septic systems,” the report stated.

The result didn’t surprise Barr, who said soils in the village are generally conducive to treating wastewater through small, private septic systems.

“Empire is an anomaly as far as this area goes. With our soils in the Empire Village, we’re surrounded by two huge sand dunes and it shows here. And that’s not a case for the rest of the county ... we don’t have above-ground septic systems like they do in the middle of the state, either.”

As Barr explained earlier, the question may come down to commercial vs. residential areas. The study cited an economic need for a municipal sewer system. Examinations were conducted on 35 parcels that make up Empire’s current business and public building base:

 24 parcels, or 69 percent, are nonconforming today with current septic regulations. The properties are restricted in how they can change uses due to land area and wastewater discharge limitations.

 The other 11 parcels are conforming to their original building use, but are restricted from any expansion that would increase wastewater discharge.

Frey said the study showed that wastewater disposal is controlling land use for much of the commercial district, which he describes as shaped like a “T” starting on Front Street at the Village Inn going west to M-22, then spreading south and north.

Front Street may be zoned commercial, but most of its building stock remains residential. The village was originally split into 50-foot lots, which are often not large enough to support a commercial private septic system, state-required reserve land should the original system fail, and a building.

Those residential buildings may remain homes, but their commercial use is tenuous unless their private septic systems meet state requirements for the type of business considered.

“Maybe they could get a gift shop in there, but couldn’t have a coffee shop. I’m not being critical of the (Benzie- Leelanau) Health Department. They’re enforcing state rules,” Frey said.

“It would be impossible for a new, full-service restaurant to open in our town,” he added.

Compared to the Northport-Leelanau Township system, whose cost has created caution in Empire residents and leaders interviewed for this story, the proposed Empire system appears affordable.

But compared to sewer costs across the country, that’s not the case. The study relied heavily on a federal grant and loan to offset the price tag to build the system.

“In Empire, even after 45 percent USDA grant funding, the affordability indexes remain high per residence,” the study shows.

Private vs. public

While the sewer question remains on the table, commercial property owners are exploring and implementing other options. A 20-room hotel now under construction will have its own septic system, requiring the purchase of an adjoining lot.

The most intriguing long-range solution for Empire’s wastewater treatment challenge has already been approved, and it’s also private. Jim Bagaloff, who’s known for developing the Storm Hill residential neighborhood, left a portion of his property undeveloped. It also happens to be a perfect mix of soils needed for a wastewater treatment facility that, as approved, is large enough to accommodate most commercial properties in the village.

Bagaloff considers the property, which includes the former Wollohan Lumber building, a diamond in the rough for the future of the Empire economy.

He envisions a brewery, restaurant or both, along with other commercial possibilities that would benefit from the property’s magnificent views of Lake Michigan.

“My mission for the property is to do something that makes the village more year-round. Look what Storm Cloud has done for Frankfort. It’s the catalyst that jump-started that town,” he said.

But Bagaloff and business partner Collins don’t want to short-circuit village plans for a sewer. And they’re looking for more financial partners to guarantee the project’s success.

“We want to hit that critical mass for doing it right. I don’t want to limp into a project at the age of 72,” he said.

And he doesn’t want to force a sewer, whether public or private, on village residents. So far, he hasn’t pushed the sewer project.

“I can go in and talk with the village, but I’m not sure the village is ready to talk to me,” he said.

Barr said the Village Council cleared the way for Bagaloff’s wastewater project.

“He’s being very cautious because his property is one of the key properties in town. I can see where that piece of property will be a driving force in our redevelopment. And he is being cautious to make sure it’s right. I have a lot of respect for him because of that,” Barr said.

Who will petition?

Ultimately the Empire Village Council would need to approve a municipal or community sewer project before its construction. The municipal system process set by the state begins with a petition started by property owners who want to create a special assessment district.

No petition has been passed so far, and no one has said publicly that they plan to start the process. Perhaps the meeting in September will provide clarity.

Paul Skinner, a former village Planning Commission chair whose term as president of the Empire Chamber of Commerce just ended, was a leader in the municipal sewer exploration effort that ended without action a decade ago. As a shop owner, he says that the question hasn’t gone away.

“Now the village is 10 years older, and the population continues to get older. A number of us find we need to have some growth rather than stagnation,” he said.

Skinner also recognizes the controversy that swirls around such a sizable project for a village with a year-round population of about 400 residents.

“It’s a hot potato, and in the last 10 years we’ve had things such as Northport,” he said.

Empire traditionally has been considered Leelanau County’s sleepy shoreline community. Located at the end of M-72, it led a quiet existence following the closing of the Empire air base right up until a few years ago when national recognition led to a sharp increase in visitation to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Now the village is facing pressure to grow and change.

“A lot of people say they would like to see the village as it was 30 years ago, as would I,” Skinner said. “Back then Empire was more of a working community. We’re not that way now because most of the population is retired.”

Perhaps the question is not whether Empire will grow, but how fast, said Frey. He pointed to a medical practice with three doctors, pharmacy and chiropractor that are located in Empire.

“From one vantage point, we have just the right combination of economic development going on,” Frey said.

Barr said the sewer decision, regardless of its direction, will be anything but impersonal. While many village homes have become rentals and there are fewer blue collar jobs, Empire remains very much a small town.

“I cannot say I know everybody in town. I used to because I delivered newspapers with my twin brother,” Barr said.

But, Barr adds, he still knows most residents, and he doesn’t want to force them into a village sewer project they oppose.

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