No one likes to think about sewers, at least no more than they need to. It's the sort of topic that rears its head only when unwanted - as on holiday weekends, with a house full of relatives, and the kitchen sink backs up, or worse.
But the next time you have a back-up, you may be faced with more than just the $100 or so charge to have the plumber come snake it out - a lot more.
On the agenda for Tuesday's City Council meeting is final approval of an ordinance amending portions of the Municipal Code that could be of significant interest to homeowners in Healdsburg who use city sewage services - which would be just about everyone.
The most immediate part of the amendment is that any sewer overflow, whether reported to the City Public Works or to a private contractor for repair, will require the homeowner to pay about $300 for a video survey of the sewer line, plus a $79 fee to the city for a video review. (See this article for more information and an actual sewer video.)
If a break, leak or other failure of the line is found in the review, the homeowner is liable for the repair of the entire lateral - no matter what side of the clean-out the problem is found.
The ordinance would assign the home owners full responsibility for the "lateral sewer" line from the home to the city's sewer line, usually in the middle of the street. This represents a change from the standing Municipal Code, section 13.40.
Since 1984, the Municipal Code has stated that the home owner's responsibility is from the house to the end of the property line, and the city's responsibility from the property line to the main sewer, if there's an accessible clean-out at the curb. This allows the city access to clean out the lateral from there to the main sewer.
So for the past 30 years, when homeowners faced the option of installing a clean-out, at the cost of several hundred dollars, they did so at least in part on the assurance of ordinance 13.20 that meant the city took responsibility for the lateral from the property line to the main sewer.
In the amendment that will come up for final approval on Tuesday in the Consent Calendar, for presumed adoption without public comment, the city no longer has that responsibility - it's being turned over to the home-owner.
The change in the sewer regulations under consideration is precipitated by a recent settlement between the City of Healdsburg and the organization Northern California River Watch, usually just referred to as River Watch. The out-of-court settlement was an effort to avoid the quagmire of lawsuit and appeal that Healdsburg went through 10 years ago.
At that time, River Watch sued and won a judgment against the City of Healdsburg, and despite an appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court the City was stuck with the decision against them, as reported by the Environmental Law Institute.
The current amendment had its first reading at the Feb. 4 City Council meeting, and while there was only one resident who spoke against it, Robert Picott (see below), the Council did discuss it at some length with Public Works Director Michael Kirn.
As well as the "sanitary overflow" situation, the inspection is required if a building permit of over $25,000 valuation is issued.
In the Feb. 4 City Council meeting, Kirn said it was widespread throughout Sonoma County municipalities that land owners were responsible for the entire length of the lateral, and called it an "industry standard" in a subsequent conversation. Sonoma, Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Rohnert Park, and other communities have made the homeowner fully responsible for the repair, Kirn said; the exceptions were Sebastopol and Cotati.
Financial support for the procedure would be available to residents only through Healdsburg's CARE discount program for low-income households. CARE provides a 20% discount to electric and sewer and a 15% discount to water on City of Healdsburg monthly utility bills. Otherwise, the full cost - of the required video inspection, review, and repair if deemed necessary by city review, would be on the property owner.
Robert Picott, a former L.A. city utility employee who retired to Healdsburg, was the only citizen at the Feb. 4 meeting to raise objections; earlier he wrote a letter to the Headlburg Tribune outlining them, and has also spoken to Patch later about his concerns.
"I want to testify on the issue of the city making all property owners now accept the liability and responsibility for something [the city] had already granted [the property owners] in the past," he said.
"It's a reverse eminent domain. They're mandating you take something, but they're not going to pay you anything. So I believe they're letting us, the property owners and the citizens here, in for some potential liability."
In the end, only Councilman Gary Plass cast a Nay vote on the ordinance; with a 4-1 vote it was assigned to the Feb. 19 Consent Calendar, set for adoption without public comment.
"I don't have a lot of problems with the ordinance, " said Plass in an interview last week. "If somebody buys a $500,000 home in Healdsburg, or is selling a $500,000 home in Healdsburg, it's not adding a lot of money. The reality is, even though if a repair is realized and needs to be done, any responsible person is going to make that repair. They don't want to be leaking sewage into the aquifer.
"My issue is more the fairness issue," he continued, citing the text of the 1984 ordinance section 13.20.460:
"Lateral sewers shall be maintained by the owner of the property servicing the building being served up to the front property line, providing a clean-out accessible to maintenance forces is accessible. If not available the owner shall maintain the lateral to the connection with the public main."
For people in the real estate market for a house in Healdsburg it's just one more thing to take into consideration, as Plass indicated; for people who already have a house, or who purchased it with the understanding of the city's partial responsibility for the lateral - or who because of the 1984 ordinance installed the curbside clean-out at an expense of at least $500 and possibly more - it's quite another.
The obvious solution might be to revise the amendment to allow those who currently have a clean-out to be immune from the requirement to pay for the lateral from property line to the main, given the ordinance as written in 1984.
While Kirn and others in Public Works say one of the problems is "accounting" - going through city records to verify who has and who does not have a lateral - Plass suggests, ""Let's put the burden back on the property owner…. [One] could go down to Community Services where they would have files of all your permits."
Speaking figuratively, Plass goes on. "We discover a lateral problem, and it's past that cleanout. I go to the city and say, 'I was part of the process where if I put that in you'd take care of the lateral. And here's my permit, and it's signed off.' So in other words, put the burden back on the public."
Given the number of questions raised, Councilman Plass is very likely to ask that the measure be removed from the Consent Calendar, where public comment is not allowed, and be reopened for discussion.
"This is a significant enough issue for me, and what I feel are my constituents, that I wasn't willing to support the ordinance," he said. "I think we need to have another discussion."
Director Kirn said carefully, "There's always room for differences of opinion on how to solve a problem."
This week's City Council meeting is not on its usual day, Monday, but has been moved to Tuesday because of Presidents' Day. The public session begins at 6 p.m. at City Hall.