To Corcoran, sewers are about much more than pipes and treatment plants.

The city is exploring whether building its own wastewater treatment infrastructure -- rather than connecting to the Metropolitan Council's -- would allow it to keep more control over its development and taxes.

Those are two important issues for a rural city populated by "refugees from other areas that developed 20, 30 years ago," said Council Member Paul Jacobs. "They were and are happy being beyond the sewer line."

No decisions have been made, and many questions remain: Can the city, which is within the Met Council's jurisdiction, truly opt out? If it does, what are the consequences? And if saying no to sewer means less development, how will the Met Council respond?

A summary of a Feb. 21 city workshop cites worries that Corcoran could suffer the same fate as Lake Elmo, which got into a fight over density with the Met Council and ended up in court -- with the Met Council prevailing.

Some engineers, organizations and residents have questioned whether it's wise for the city to refuse an opportunity to hook up with the Met Council system, which by many estimates is effective and reasonably priced.

"There's a reason why all the cities connect when they get the chance," said Stan Chastek, who has lived in Corcoran for 38 years and was a member of the city's wastewater commission for eight years. "It's the logical solution."

But it's not the only solution, said Norman Gartner, with whom the city has contracted for planning work. New technology allows new options -- including mini-treatment plants, on-site filtration systems and storage tanks -- that can treat wastewater as well as the expansive, area-wide Met Council system, he said.

"All I want to keep telling these guys is that there are options other than the big pipe right now," Gartner said. "And if the city of Corcoran can provide the same service at a cheaper rate, why should it be forced to connect?"

A different approach

The idea is that developers and homeowners could build their own small systems to capture and treat wastewater at their own expense.

Such "decentralized" systems "allow actual growth and demand to be more closely matched, which would delay unnecessary major capital expenditures by communities and municipalities," according to an article in the journal Onsite Water Treatment, a copy of which has been circulating around Corcoran City Hall.

"Decentralized options also provide communities with growth options instead of 'inducing' growth down long sewer corridors," the article states.

Right now, the Met Council's sewer system does not serve any part of Corcoran. Instead, residents and businesses rely on septic systems.

The Met Council had forecasted that by 2010, about 1,800 Corcoran households would be served by its sewers. By 2020, that number would rise to 4,500, according to the Council's "System Statement" for Corcoran.

But those numbers envisioned sewer development beginning in 2005, which didn't happen, said Met Council spokeswoman Bonnie Kollodge, and the council will be revising its timeline.

"Who knows when it'll actually come -- which is another problem," Jacobs said.

Sewer connections, now a half-mile away, will probably reach city boundaries by 2009 in the southeast and 2010 in the northeast. But "the city could amend the location and timing for the approved sewer area," Kollodge said.

Negotiating with Met Council

The Met Council, by law, can require a city to connect to the regional sewage system, she said, but long before that would happen, the city and the regional planning authority would work through any differences and address them through the comprehensive plan, which Corcoran must submit to the Met Council for approval.

The city is in the midst of updating that plan, and many discussions around it have focused thus far on the if, when and where of sewers.

Gartner has proposed adding language to the plan that would allow decentralized, packaged wastewater facilities that are at least one-half mile from the Met Council's sewer line. "Connection to the sanitary sewer lines would not be required for at least 25 years," according to the language proposed by Gartner.

The Met Council has allowed small, private wastewater treatment plans to serve mobile home parks or industry, Kollodge said. But she warned: "If these cluster developments were located in areas planned for future sewered development, they could hinder future orderly, economical sewered development."

Corcoran's current comprehensive plan, which resulted from a 1998 planning process, shows the city being provided sewer infrastructure. Thus, "regional investments have been made to provide future sewer service to Corcoran," Kollodge said.

Just as the Met Council shouldn't fluctuate wildly from one idea about sewer to another, cities shouldn't either, said Louis Jambois, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Municipalities.

"It's extremely important for cities and the Met Council to begin their dialogue early," he said.

Although the Met Council's rates are lower than those in many metro areas, he said, "Sewer is extremely expensive. And once a decision is made to install it, it's there and it has to be paid for."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168