Sewer concerns left Westminster with limited choices

Cross Currents: A column by Bill Christopher
Posted 7/31/18

Sometimes you can experience too much of a good thing. Too much rain can cause flooding, too much candy can make a child ill and too many hot peppers can make your stomach upset. Well, too much new …

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Sewer concerns left Westminster with limited choices


Sometimes you can experience too much of a good thing.

Too much rain can cause flooding, too much candy can make a child ill and too many hot peppers can make your stomach upset.

Well, too much new growth, served by the same sanitary sewer pipes with increased domestic water use flowing down the toilets, can lead to serious consequences.

That basically is what the Westminster city government became faced with given the accelerated growth in the Big Dry Creek Drainage Basin which is two-thirds of the city’s land area.

New development — especially apartment complexes, hotels and restaurants north of 92nd Avenue from Standley Lake to the Big Dry Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant at 132nd Avenue and Huron Street — have generated sewage flows at a larger volume than previously projected.

Moratorium imposed on Big Dry Creek basin new development

The City Council has imposed a 12-month moratorium on new development in this drainage basin unless developers are ready to pull building permits or have “existing approvals, accepted applications or accepted pre-application request that have been submitted prior to the July 24th deadline.”

Plans already submitted will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis for the issuance of building permits. In other words, if Mr. Developer was thinking about building new residential units, but has not even talked to city staff yet, he comes under the moratorium.

If new development is being pursued in the Little Dry Creek Drainage Basin of Westminster (south of 92nd Avenue) or in The Orchard development area, there are no restrictions. This is simply focused on the sanitary sewer system which serves a large geographical part of Westminster with the sewage being carried to the wastewater treatment plant.

City is “still open for business”

A key reason to impose this moratorium is to allow city staff and consulting engineers to determine the available alternatives to solve the problem, establish cost estimates and timelines and then implement the best alternative or set of alternatives. The engineering study portion alone is projected to take nine months.

During this time, city staff will be exploring creative ways to reduce sewage flows and welcomes ideas from interested parties. For example, ultra-low flow toilets could be imposed on all new development to help reduce the normal projected sewage flow.

City Council and City Manager Don Tripp were emphatic that the city will still be open for business to allow as much new development as possible without risky overflow situations.

1970’s growth management plan focused on water restraints

This situation reminds me of what occurred in the 1970’s with rapid, large volume growth in Westminster. The constraining factor then was water — and where to get it.

The city council implemented a growth management plan based on the ability to serve to new development. It constrained the market demand to assure reliable, quality utility service to existing residents/utility customers. New residential development throughout the city was limited in the number of water taps or “service commitments” which developers could purchase in a given year. The city was successful in defending the plan in court in three separate lawsuits from developers/property owners.

It would seem the city’s growth management plan could easily be utilized in the Big Dry Creek sewer capacity problem with little effort. However, the approach chosen is a “first come, first served” approach.

Acting sooner might have helped

The City Administration and City Council are to be commended on the one hand that the moratorium approach is quite transparent and upfront.

However, as the staff recited the chronology of the evolving capacity problem along with the age and condition of the system at the July 23rd City Council meeting, it raised the question of why wasn’t the problem acted on sooner.

Utility studies done in 2012 and 2015 showed the problem to be on the horizon a few years out in front based on a less aggressive pace of development. However, new development in the drainage basin since 2008 has increased sewage flows by a whopping 40 percent. This is huge!

The other major factor is the cost and funding of replacing the 22 mile pipe system. A preliminary cost figure of $30 million was quoted by city staff. While the infrastructure cost was anticipated in the city’s utility capital improvement plan, it was a few years “down the road” based on smaller sewage flows. In all likelihood, the city will be issuing utility bonds with the funds available in 2019 for construction.

Comprehensive plan enforcement is the key

It is easy to look back in hindsight and second guess the city. However, there are a number of factors that are at play in a fast growing city. I would submit that the key to the whole utility plan for both looking back over the past few years and certainly for the remaining build-out of the city should be a stricter use and enforcement of the city’s comprehensive plan.

Rather than simply amending the comp plan each time a developer wants to build something that the existing comp plan does not accommodate, stricter enforcement of the plan would serve the city well. When changing the comp plan, it changes the water and sewer demands accordingly. If you make enough changes, like increasing the number of apartment developments allowed compared to small retail or office uses, the problem is accelerated.

An opportunity for the city

There is a “silver lining” in this moratorium.

First, it perhaps will generate an increased interest in further developments at the “New Downtown” since it is not affected by the moratorium.

Also, development opportunities south of 92nd Avenue in the Little Dry Creek basin may get more attention for the same reason. New development or re-development south of 72nd Avenue could include residential development around the B Line train station. The sewer system south of 92nd Avenue has recently been updated and can handle sewage flows which would come from any developments in this basin.

It behooves the city to take advantage of the situation— “when you are given lemons; make lemonade.”


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