Selectmen put out feelers at a special meeting at the Varney Building Tuesday night to gauge the town's interest in an initiative to install city water and sewer lines in the downtown area.

Selectman Mike Switzer said the session was not a "decision" meeting, but rather an informational one as to why the Board of Selectmen would like to move forward with this effort.

In a conversation with a Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson, Switzer said he learned there are still grants available for a project such as this, and selectmen were following DEP guidelines in calling a town meeting.

Switzer, who co-owns Ralph's Cafe, said their septic failed several years back and it looked like it would cost $40,000 to replace. Fortunately, he said, they were able to add another tank, which saved them $30,000.

"I know there are other businesses and homes in the center of town that may not be so lucky," he said.

The initial cost for a feasibility study is $20,000, Switzer said, with the town or "private sources" contributing any additional funds not covered by grants.

A DEP spokeman said there are two possible funding sources for the "planning" part of the project. U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development is one; according to the income level of the town, it could pay up to 75% of the total. DEP also has grants available that would cover about 25% of the initial study, depending on need and income level. "The town might be able to get the majority of the study funded," he said.

While it is not feasible to put a treatment plant in Brooks, Switzer said, it might be feasible to install a large-enough leach field to accommodate downtown businesses and homes. Switzer used the town of Kingfield as an example, saying the town has been running a leach field-type system since the 1980s without any issues.

An overlay showing the downtown area had 123 lots surveyed; 21 of those lots had septic tanks that had been replaced since 2000. A few lots on the overlay were identified as having knowledge of the condition of the tanks, one lot had an overboard-discharge system (treated wastewater is discharged directly into rivers and streams), and one lot has a holding tank. All of the other 56 lots were listed as "unknown."

Randy Hall, the town's code enforcement officer said, "Of these 123, 26 are distressed systems, meaning they are over 20 years old, some are over 30 …. Bottom line is they are an accident waiting to happen."

When asked in a telephone interview why so many town septics have failed, Hall said, "They are old."

Many, he said, are from the 1980s or '90s when the filtration systems were not as well designed as they are today. The average lifespan of a septic tank is around 25 years, though he concede, his own tank, which was made from stones, has lasted more than 40 years. He also said Brooks was not alone and that many towns he serves as CEO are having the same issues.

On average, Hall said, a 1,000-gallon household septic can cost around $12,000, but the size of the tank depends on the number of bedrooms in a home. The formula is about "90 gallons per bedroom," he said.

A Planning Board member explained the importance of the initiative at hand. "If we lose property because septic systems fail and a house ends up getting torn down, or abandoned," he said, "the school tax won't go down and the county tax won't go down; those bills will still be there and now will be paid by a smaller tax base than before."

Switzer said the town could take on the "whole burden" and it would become a town system, or the town could set up a "water district" whereby only people using the system would pay into it. Those people using the system would receive an added tax. Tapping into the system would be at the property owner's discretion, and "If your septic is fine, you don't have to use it," he said.

Someone asked why water was being considered, saying, "Getting water in town is real easy; getting rid of it is a problem."

Switzer replied, "If you're digging up to lay pipe for one, why not lay pipe for the other as well — if it's feasible. We might as well look at everything if we're going to pay to have this looked at."

A Planning Board member said, "I have seven years at the Co-op building on a 25-year-old system. My system has potential to fail.

"I have two apartments, the Co-op, which cannot have a commercial kitchen because I am limited due to the septic capacity — and the building next door, which is for sale, is on my system."

The building next door can only use 30 gallons of water a day, she said, adding, "That's why that building hasn't sold and that's why I didn't buy it."

If she were to expand her leach field, she would need to "remove a building" out back. "It's scary for me. I have a big investment in this building," she said. "I don't know what I would do if my system fails."

Switzer said he knew of two businesses that could not move into town because of the limited septic and water capacity.

"As a selectman and a business owner, I'd like to see the town grow," Switzer said. "I'd like another restaurant, to be honest. I shouldn't feel afraid that if my system fails, that I am going to have to close."

One resident said he shares his failing septic system and has to test his water regularly because of "rainbow water running out of the groundwater all year long." He said the only way to update and expand the system would be to take down his barn.

The feasibility study will look to answer many questions, Switzer said. "Can we have a laundromat, can we support more businesses, where would the leach field go, do we do a water district; all these questions need to be asked before we can look at getting funding to put that system in.

"There is only so much money in the grand system," Switzer said. "And I would like to be able to get as much as we can so the town doesn't have to pay a larger chunk of money."

Depending on how much grant money becomes available, he said, the issue will be voted on, either at a special town meeting or at the annual town meeting next spring.