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If we want to revitalize vacant village centers, encourage compact development, expand the availability of affordable housing and high-quality childcare, address the growing climate crisis, attract younger people to stay in and move to Vermont, and invest in workforce development, we need to look underground. I’m not talking figuratively. The solution, quite literally, lies beneath our feet. As Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, I regularly ask town officials, regional planners, community leaders, business owners, and neighbors about the problems their communities are facing and ideas they have to fix these issues. People routinely call-out opportunities to revitalize their communities — opening a restaurant or community center, adding an accessory dwelling unit or starting a daycare facility — that have been stymied by a lack of wastewater treatment.

More than 150 Vermont downtowns and village centers are without a public wastewater system, which limits economic growth. Failed septic systems prevent the redevelopment of buildings; wastewater system limitations stop a general store from adding a market café; and a lack of public water and sewer is often a key limiting factor to a community’s ability to add new housing or businesses.

It’s important to note, “wastewater systems” are more than just infrastructure — they are often the key to community revitalization. Having a village wastewater system — a shared septic system that can serve up to several dozen buildings — encourages investors and entrepreneurs to rehabilitate vacant buildings and individual homeowners to reinvest in their property.

In the 1970s and 1980s, significant funding was available to build wastewater systems. A friend recently described the communities who took advantage of this funding as having won the “sewer lottery” because there have been scarce state and federal resources available for these systems since.

That’s changing. Vermont will receive $1 billion through the federal American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, which specifically encourages investments in wastewater systems. For years, Vermont’s communities have been planning — and hoping — for an opportunity like this. They have formulated visions for their future and defined steps to make their vision a reality. But these plans often hinge on wastewater systems they cannot afford. Now, with the once-in-a-generation opportunity provided through ARPA, we can finally fund these tangible projects, which will fuel transformational results.

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These investments provide significant socioeconomic returns. The Town of West Windsor is a great example. It secured funding for redevelopment projects in Brownsville Village, including over $50,000 in village center tax credits to rehabilitate and re-open the Brownsville General store. In parallel, $2.4 million in wastewater infrastructure funds were used to update and extend the existing sewer system through the village. Today, among other things, the village boasts the Ascutney Outdoors Center, attracting outdoor recreation enthusiasts from throughout the region, and the Brownsville Butcher and Pantry, a business that turned a shuttered general store into a thriving community business. One need only stand in the newly renovated store to see the promise these village wastewater systems hold for our communities.

Montgomery is another town working to attract more young people and they need affordable housing in the village center to do so. However, they cannot build new or turn vacant buildings into affordable housing without a village wastewater system. They’ve completed the engineering planning necessary to install such a system, but with an estimated price tag over $10 million, Montgomery needs state or federal financial assistance to turn their plan into reality.

Gov. Phil Scott proposed $35 million in ARPA monies to support the construction of village wastewater systems, allowing these communities to realize their vision of vibrant, thriving town centers. This funding would support ten or more such projects across the state. And these infrastructure projects represent investments in equity. When lack of infrastructure shutters a general store, a rural Vermonter is forced to drive 50 minutes one way to a grocery store. When inadequate wastewater treatment capacity prevents vacant buildings from being renovated into apartments, rural Vermonters are denied access to affordable housing in a walkable village center. Folks living in the most rural parts of our state should be able to find the basic amenities in their village centers. We cannot afford to turn our backs on them by denying them available funding for wastewater system improvements.

In Vermont, the best solutions start at the local level. Strategic state and federal assistance amplify these community-based solutions and produces results. Let us support the people living in our villages and towns by standing with their vision and their tangible plans for the future, many of which rest upon village wastewater infrastructure investments.

Julie Moore is secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.