The proposed city amendment to the Municipal Code that would have established home owner responsibility for the entire waste lateral, from home to main sewer, was sent back to staff for further study at Tuesday night's City Council meeting.
The measure, the subject of an article in Patch on Feb 18, was proposed by Public Works Department chief Mike Kirn as a way to meet the requirements of a settlement with Northern California River Watch adopted over a year ago, January 12, 2012, to avoid a lawsuit under environmental laws.
However there was some question if that settlement required homeowners to assume responsibility of lateral lines all the way out to the sewer. That was one area of uncertainty among several in the proposed ordinance, as public speakers commenting on the action demonstrated.
The measure was originally part of the Consent Calendar for the Feb. 19 agenda, which meant no public comment would have been allowed. However Robert Picott asked the city to reopen the topic for public comment, and Councilman Gary Plass - who cast a negative vote in the bill's first reading - so moved.
Public comment came initially from Picott, who added to his objections outlined in the previous city council meeting. Tonight, he pointed out that requiring a different standard for private owners than for publically-owned facilities might present legal issues, and the lack of compensation or assurance of quality when the entire lateral was assigned to the landowner opened the city to lawsuit from citizens, should a problem occur.
Two realtors also raised issues, including John Torres of Century 21 who asked for clarification on the issue so he could assure current and potential homeowners of their actual responsibility. He also anecdotally mentioned someone who said they were moving to another municipality (Grass Valley) in part because of the added responsibility for costs of the lateral line beneath city streets.
His colleague at Century 21, Beth Robertson, adamantly objected from her perspective as a property manager. Speaking in particular of Johnson Street, she said "I don't feel as a property owner I should be responsible for what the city has done to the street." She characterized Johnson Street being overplayed with a multiplicity of patches already.
While other public comment indicated more confusion than actual objection, Gary Miksis, a 30-plus year plumbing contractor in Healdsburg, questioned the city's standards for judging what condition would necessitate a lateral replacement or repair. He advocated including national and state standards for pipe and lateral contractors be added to the terms. At present only a vague "city review" is called for of the CCTV survey of a lateral where a sanitary sewage overflow was reported.
Miksis was questioned by the council over his $100 per linear foot estimate of repair, as quoted in Patch, which he verified. He briefly outlined several means of replacing lateral pipe, including several that did require the city street property to be partially excavated. He also said that a spot repair was preferable where possible, as it was "much cheaper."
When the question returned to Council, even more questions were raised. Councilman Sean McCafferty was particularly troubled that a homeowner was to be responsible for lateral pipe problems that occurred under the street, "surrounded by city property."
Other utilities, including water and electricity, are metered at the point of delivery, and that meter sets a demarcation point for personal responsibility for repair. But there is no meter or other measure for sewage, making determination of the point of responsibility a gray area.
"I'm just really uncomfortable with the homeowner having to dig up the street," said McCafferty. "It's scary."
Councilman Plass repeated his argument as reported in Patch that the 1984 statue covering lateral responsibility should be honored if a clean-out is in place, as it represented an agreement between homeowner and the city.
Councilman Tom Chambers pointed out that the ordinance was a part of the settlement between the City and River Watch. "The way we have it in California, anyone can sue us over anything."
River Watch has filed over 200 suits and many "intent to sue" papers against municipalities and utilities over compliance with federal and state environmental law, often reaching agreement prior to out of court for settlement fees and legal costs.
"I think we need to make it very straightforward," said Chambers. "If we have to go back and take another look at the ordinance, we should take a look at the whole picture."
There was some uncertainty that the ordinance amendment would satisfy River Watch's terms, or if the assignment of costs to private home owners was part of their intent.
"Obviously it's more complicated," said Chambers, asking Kirn and other city staff to "go back and take another look at it."
The possibility that the ordinance could be passed as it is written, thereby satisfying a time-line requirement from River Watch, and later qualified by another resolution was presented by assistant City Manager David Mickaelian.
But Chambers, and McCafferty, seemed very uncomfortable with the blanket assignment of financial responsibility to the home owner for the entire length of the lateral, including that under city streets.
"If it's in the street, it's the city's problem," said Chambers. "It's not going to be where some people get off the hook, no way," he said, referring to the standing clean-out requirement.
Miksus offered the observation from his experience that other cities have partnership programs, where homeowners can share with the city 50/50 for costs of lateral repair, up to a fixed about, say $4,000, the figure he cited for Petaluma's program.
But at the end of the discussion, especially with Councilman Jim Woods not in attendance to vote, it was agreed by consensus to ask staff to re-evaluate the ordinance, possibly coming up with two or three alternate was of dealing with the issue.
It is likely the staff evaluation will be fast-tracked to present alternatives at the next City Council meeting, to avoid further delay in the River Watch settlement.