The town of Brooks has been awarded a grant to fund a study on wastewater treatment in the downtown area.

The USDA Rural Development office announced Aug. 25 a grant totaling $22,600 will be used for a feasibility study to determine options and analyze the cost of installing a system to service residences and businesses in the downtown village area.

Linda Lord, Brooks selectman and Planning Board chairman, said the main reason for the study is to find out about the different options, the costs involved and how people can attach to the system.

At this point, she said, “we don’t know what it will look like,” but added, “we thought it was awfully important.”

Randy Hall, the town’s code enforcement officer, said at a public hearing in 2019 that of the 123 lots surveyed in the downtown area, 21 had septic tanks that had been replaced since 2000.

The owners of 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."

Of those 123 lots, Hall said, 26 are distressed systems, or over 20 years old, with some over 30 years old. “Bottom line is they are an accident waiting to happen," he said.

The average lifespan of a septic tank is around 25 years, he noted, though some last longer. Hall said that Brooks was not alone and that many towns he serves as CEO are having similar issues.

At the 2019 public hearing, Selectman Mike Switzer, who co-owns Ralph's Cafe, said the restaurant's septic failed several years back and it looked like it would cost $40,000 to replace. Fortunately, he said, Ralph's was able to add another tank, which saved it $30,000.

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

Several public hearings have taken place, Lord said, and selectmen were given the go- ahead by residents “as long as it did not cost a penny.”

"A lot of people have contributed to the process," she said. "And it's been very much appreciated."

Lord, along with Izzy McKay, a concerned resident, and fellow Planning Board member Ray Quimby, investigated and applied for the USDA grant.

In a conversation with The Republican Journal Sept. 3, McKay, who owns the Marsh River Cooperative building, said the building next to hers, while not physically attached to her septic system, has an easement to use it. Currently, she said, her septic is “maxed out” with the needs of the Coop and two apartments above the store.

She said every time a real estate for sale sign goes up on the building near hers, she calls the real estate company and tells them the building has no septic capacity.

Many systems in the village are stressed in this way, she said, which impedes new businesses from locating in town. Residents said in a town survey that they favored a laundromat in the downtown area, she said. Unfortunately, the town in its current state does not have the septic capacity to accommodate such businesses.

It would be great to have a bakery, another restaurant or a car wash, McKay said, but she can’t imagine how feasible it is. She has even been contacted by the town clerk, asking if a neighbor with a failed septic system could connect to hers.

“For a small town like ours to survive,” she said, “you need a grocery store, a gas station — some basic services,” and with the current overloaded conditions, it is difficult for the town to maintain the village area.

Most business owners in the village, she said, favor a water treatment plan of some variety, while homeowners are concerned it will inevitably raise their taxes. With the village area comprising 30% of the tax base, “If a septic system fails,” she said, “our taxes are going to go up.”

The study will give the town some options cost-wise, and physical possibilities, she said. It will also show residents and town officials how to deal with wastewater in a way that will not hurt the Marsh River. McKay hopes the study will be conducted in time for the next town meeting in spring, where options could be voted on by residents.