A large crowd expected next month at a public meeting on Cheltenham's troubled sewer system has led township officials to book the high school's theater.
The special meeting to discuss proposals for fixing the century-old system, including possibly selling off the 120 miles of township-owned collection pipes, will be held Sept. 28 at the Little Theater inside Cheltenham High School, officials said in a statement on the municipal website Friday.
In addition to plans for the publicly-owned system, the township's board of supervisors will also discuss ongoing proposals for privately-owned sewer laterals at the 7 p.m. meeting. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has mandated that Cheltenham and its residents upgrade the township-wide sewer system because it has fallen behind runoff and overflow standards.
But the costly upgrades, both to the public coffers and to property owners, have proven difficult for local elected officials to implement.
Since May, the township board of supervisors have twice delayed voting on proposed legislation to begin mandatory inspections of all private laterals. Those are the pipes connecting private property owners to the public system.
Township Manager Bryan Havir told NBC10.com in May that bringing the public system up to state standards could cost as much as $80 million over the next decade.
Replacing private laterals, which in many homeowners' cases date to the early 20th century and are made of now-crumbling terracotta, could cost up to $10,000, officials have said. The cost to property owners depends on the size of the property, particularly the distance from inhabited structures to the street.
In the statement posted Friday, the township once again explained the dire situation facing the long-neglected system: "Like a lot of inner-ring communities, Cheltenham’s sewer infrastructure is showing its age. ... Over time, pipes can crack or break, joints can separate, and tree roots can cause blockages. Such defects can allow clean rain and groundwater to enter the sanitary sewer system, which unnecessarily inflates the sewage treatment costs and can overwhelm the system. If the problem is left uncorrected, sewage can back up into homes and businesses, and overflows can pollute waterways."
The township has proposed charging property owners for inspection fees, which officials have said would allay the cost to have every property's laterals inspected.
The initial proposals have called for inspections to begin in the neighborhoods of Cheltenham Village and Glenside as early as this fall. But after township supervisors opted to hold a public hearing late next month, that timeframe has become less likely.
With about 15,000 parcels in the township, inspections will take seven to eight years. After the first two neighborhoods, the township's proposal called for inspectors to next canvas the Wyncote and Melrose Park East sections. The schedule beyond that was never publicly announced.
As local officials have done in recent months, they reiterated Friday that the state DEP is requiring the expensive overhaul.
"Over the years the township has taken multiple steps, and continues to act, to address the issue within publicly owned pipes and via illegal sump pump disconnects," the posted statement said. "The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is requiring Cheltenham officials to prioritize a comprehensive assessment program and repair of private laterals, the small, privately-owned lines that connect homes, businesses and institutions to the sanitary sewer mains."
The Montgomery County town is part of what state officials have described as a $30 billion infrastructure problem for Pennsylvania. State Rep. Steve McCarter (D-Glenside) said "inner-rim suburbs" -- those bordering metropolitan areas like Philadelphia -- across the state face similarly dire situations.
"Nobody wants to talk about what’s underground and out of site," McCarter said. "But it’s going to cause a lot of consternation and disruption."