Town officials say an unlikely culprit has slowed potential economic development in downtown Bethel. According to John Lennon, Bethel Planning and Zoning Commission, with many potential retail properties in Bethel, “you can only flush a toilet so many times a day.”
“We have this problem that nobody wants to look at. It's sewer allocation,” Lennon said.
Bethel sewage is treated in Danbury at a sewage treatment plant. Since the town pays for the sewage it sends to Danbury, each property has a given amount of gallons of sewage allocated. At some properties in town, the allotted gallons are quite limited, which has prevented potential retailers and restaurants from opening because these and other businesses need a lot of sewage capacity.
The lack of sewage capacity has clogged development efforts in downtown Bethel on Greenwood Avenue, where several storefronts are currently vacant. It could also present problems for development plans along the route 6 Corridor – an area where many see great potential for commercial growth and gains in the town's tax revenue.
“One of the things that has restrained our development on Greenwood Avenue is lack of sewage capacity,” said Bethel First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker.
Recently a developer was seriously interested in developing a vacant commercial lot on Greenwood Avenue next to the Burger King, but the deal fell through because the property did not have the necessary sewer allocations. But for those who would like to see more development in Bethel there's light at the end of the tunnel.
Over the past year the town has developed a plan to create a sewer bank. The town will be able to sell unused sewer capacity from undeveloped lots and areas to new developments that need more capacity.
Knickerbocker said that with the new system, if a developer is interested in a property that is only alloted 400 gallons a day but they need 800, “for a small fee they can buy that additional capacity and we remove it from the bank.”
There will be a public hearing on the sewer bank system on June 4 at the Bethel Municipal Center. Knickerbocker said he anticipates the sewer bank system becoming a law sometime this summer.
“That's going to help our future business expansion on Greenwood Avenue a great deal,” he said.
In addition, Knickerbocker said the town will look to repair the existing sewer system. “The flow from Bethel to the plant in Danbury is metered,” explained Knickerbocker. “You always know that in heavy rain the systems flow will go way up. What that means is our system is leaking and fresh rainwater is getting in.”
Knickerbocker said the town is planning to hire a company that “will be able to identify where things need to be repaired and then we'll have more capacity of actual waste flow into the plant, [in Danbury].”
In addition to increasing sewer capacity, Knickerbocker said the town is hoping to spur economic development on Greenwood Avenue by hosting more events and drawing people downtown, which helps support existing business and helps new business owners “discover that this is a nice place to start a business and start a retail shop.”
Long term, there are also plans to rezone areas around downtown and allow for more residential lots. Town officials hope that will encourage more foot traffic on Greenwood Avenue. This plan is similar to the town's plan to develop the Route 6 Corridor. With a mixture of smaller retailer stores and homes behind them, people will be able walk to the stores.
“You'll get a sense of community when you get people walking instead of driving,” Lennon said.
Longtime Greenwood Avenue business owners John Esposito and his brother Dennis have owned Disc & Dat record store for more than a decade. John said that Greenwood Avenue is not the same as it once was.
“It's changed, there's so many vacant stores and stores that are here, they're closed on Sundays so there's not too much to come here for on a Sunday because there's not a whole lot going on.” He added, “we'd like to see more stores. I think it would be good if the landlords lowered the rent to make it affordable to rent stores here.”
Esposito said he hoped town redevelopment efforts would help make Bethel “a cool town to come in and walk around.”
Knickerbocker said development on Greenwood Avenue has turned a corner and pointed to new businesses in Dolan Plaza such as Peachwave Frozen Yogurt and Byrd's Books.
“We are in much much better shape then we were two years ago. We have just a couple of retail spots and we're working with the property owners to try and help them attract tenets,” he said.