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Afton's septic plan draws fire

What was intended to be a routine public hearing for Afton's proposed facility plan quickly turned into a battle between communities last week.

Afton City Council held a public hearing May 6 over its proposed facility plan, which details the city's proposed communal subsurface wastewater treatment system.

The public hearing drew so many residents from Afton, Lake St. Croix Beach and St. Mary's Point that the hearing had to be moved out to the City Hall parking lot since City Hall was over capacity.

"It was a good opening dialogue," Mayor Pat Snyder said. "There were a lot of questions and concerns raised that the city will now have to address. We've got our work cut out for us."

The project

As part of the city's flood hazard mitigation project, noncompliant and old septic systems within Afton's Old Village must be removed.

The septic systems need to be removed in order for the city's levee to be accredited and to prevent the systems from polluting the river at times of flooding, Snyder said.

Currently there are about 86 septic systems within the city's levee.

Plans call for a cluster system and include a large subsurface wastewater treatment system, which is essentially a larger version of what an individual home is currently served by, said Diane Hankee, Afton's city engineer.

The proposed wastewater treatment system consists of a recirculating gravel filter and nitrogen reduction process designed to meet secondary treatment levels of contaminants, Hankee said.

After going through these treatment processes, the treated water will recharge the local groundwater aquifer through infiltration beds.

"It is environmentally the best solution to protect the river, minimizing discharges to the river," Hankee said. "The system was chosen because it minimizes the impact on the environment and will fit well in a naturally rural setting."

The system is proposed to be located at 2318 St. Croix Trail South, the center two to three acres on a 25-acre site.

Hankee said the location was chosen based on proximity to the Old Village, elevation, available soils and parcel size.

The total cost of the project is expected to be $4 million and will be divided up as follows: $1 million will come from Department of Natural Resources grant funding, $250,000 will come from grant funding from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, $1.5 million will come from the Public Facilities Authority and $1.25 million will be paid for by the city through assessments of the benefiting properties.

Construction on the project is planned to begin the summer of 2014.

The concerns

As a requirement for the public funding, Afton had to not only design a facility plan, but hold a public hearing on the plan, prompting last Monday's meeting.

"You're playing the game to get the money at our expense," Lake St. Croix Beach resident and planning commission member Linda O'Driscoll said during the hearing.

During the hearing, residents of Lake St. Croix Beach and St. Mary's Point, who have neighboring properties to the proposed site, voiced concerns over environmental impacts, odor and property values.

"Are you going to put in writing that this will not devalue my houses? If so, have at it. Otherwise, adios muchachos," one resident said during the hearing.

Hankee and another consultant from WSB & Associates Inc., tried their best to quell residents' concerns.

"The city of Afton would not have supported the project if there would be environmental impacts or odor concerns associated with this system.," Hankee said in an interview after the hearing.

The nearest property to the site would be 300 feet away, Hankee said.

Several residents asked why an alternate location could not be found.

"I sympathize with you knowing that you have a problem, but Lake St. Croix Beach should not be part of your problem," said Tom McCarthy, the mayor of Lake St. Croix Beach.

"If we would have chosen a different site, we'd be having the same meeting just with different residents," Hankee said. "We're not going to avoid the 'not in my backyard' argument."

Hankee said she was surprised at how much of a turnout there was at the public hearing.

"Considering the small size and low impact of the project, we were not expecting that many people to attend from the neighboring communities," she said. "The meeting provided a good opportunity for people to be heard."

Afton is planning to schedule at least one, if not two, additional public hearings on the plan so more residents can voice concerns and more information can be provided.

"We know we have a problem and we are trying to address it," Snyder said. "We will make every effort to work with the neighboring property owners, and neighboring cities for that matter, because this affects us all."

Hankee and Snyder said they hope the project is able to move forward as planned.

"I didn't want this to turn into a war between communities," Hankee said. "It was intended to be good stewards of the river."

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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