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Windham selectmen debate possible paths to municipal water

WINDHAM — A proposed $35,000 study to examine Windham’s future options for adding municipal water should not appear on the 2014 operating budget but as a separate warrant article on the spring ballot, selectmen agreed Monday night.

Ralph Valentine, a member of the Windham Economic Development Committee, has been sharing the plan proposal with various town boards and committees over the past month or so.

This week, he told selectmen that the combination of a lack of a townwide municipal water source and overall lack of fire hydrants is a major obstacle to Windham increasing its commercial tax base.

The study committee’s earlier findings indicate ongoing concerns for both residential and commercial properties, since Windham uses fire cisterns rather than hydrants.

“We have cisterns all over town, but these can become a huge maintenance challenge when they age,” Valentine said.

The committee has met about a dozen times over the past six months.

Valentine referred to a statewide study conducted in the early 1990s that suggested southern New Hampshire could benefit from sourcing its public water from the nearby Merrimack River, further noting that Pennichuck Waterworks’ facility “currently has a lot of unused capacity.”

“Of course, we’d then have to find the best way to get the water here,” he said.

The town relies on individual bedrock wells as well as 68 separate public wells, with the largest of those wells serving approximately 200 homes.

Pennichuck Water Works has one public water line extended near the Hudson town line, which serves a very small portion of Windham, according to town officials.

Valentine said the committee feels strongly that bringing in water from an outside source would recharge the town’s water system, while making it possible to bring fire hydrants into Windham.

Selectman Al Letizio, who sits on the town’s Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) committee, said Windham requires all of its new businesses to install fire cisterns, which can be prohibitive when it comes to insurance costs.

“People often ask me how far they are from the nearest fire hydrant and I hesitate to tell them it’s the next town over,” Letizio said. “And not having hydrants means that both home owners’ and business owners’ insurance costs are skyrocketing.”

Valentine said the town has everything to gain by extending municipal water.

A January 2012 municipal study on the cost of public services indicated that new commercial development would result in a net gain of 78 cents for every tax dollar collected in Windham, while the town’s master plan calls for an increase in the commercial tax base to 10 percent of total valuation by 2014.

Windham’s commercial tax base is at about 8 percent, according to Community Development Director Laura Scott, meaning the master plan’s goal for next year won’t likely be met.

Selectman Roger Hohenberger said he supported putting the water study before voters but stressed the item should be kept separate from the general operating budget.

“It’s a great idea for economic development, but it’s going to be tough to sell this one to the taxpayer who won’t see immediate benefits,” Hohenberger said. “This should be a separate warrant article because it seems unfair to bury this ($35,000) study in the operating budget.”

Valentine noted that while the study itself would be taxpayer-funded, it’s still too soon to tell where funding for an actual water extension would come from.“It’s important for us to be very clear in our message,” board Chairman Phil LoChiatto said. “We’re not expanding water at this time, but we’d like to look into the matter and see what it might mean for us to do so.”

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