Thursday, September 20, 2007

Agency Presents Septic Tank Alternative

Ojai Valley Sanitary District setting up plan to help some homeowners hook up to sewer lines

By Daryl Kelly
The Ojai Valley Sanitary District is moving toward a new system to help some homeowners with failing septic tanks connect with the municipal sewer by spreading the $20,000 connection cost over 30 years and making repayment a property debt that could be passed on to the next owner.
“Those are the two benefits of this new system,” said John Correa, general manager of the sewer district, which serves about 8,400 customers from Ojai to the North Avenue area of Ventura.
The downside of the new plan would be that new sewer customers would have to pay several hundred dollars in initial administrative fees plus $1,612 a year for 30 years to pay off the $20,000 debt, if they kept their homes that long. That equates to $134 a month on top of the standard $46 monthly sewer charge.
But that’s less than the $183 a month, plus $46, now paid under the district’s current septic conversion program for a $20,000 personal loan, Correa said.
District directors approved this week a $35,000 contract with an engineering firm to study creation of numerous community facilities districts that could include thousands of Ojai Valley homes that now use septic tanks to collect and filter sewage, but could connect to the municipal sewer if homeowners wanted. These new districts could be as small as one house, while exempting houses on the same block that didn’t want the service, Correa said.
“The district board has made it clear they don’t want to force people to connect,” he said. “If the majority want it, we’ll help them do that. But we won’t force their neighbors to hook up.”
Areas that have dozens of septic tanks but could hook up, he said, include the Arbolada-Foothill area of Ojai, the Los Encinos area near Burnham Road, the Siete Robles area in east Ojai, the Five Oaks and Rancho Hills areas and parts of Meiners Oaks and Casitas Springs.
Proposals to extend the municipal sewer have historically gone nowhere in some of those areas. Three times since the 1970s, some residents of Los Encinos have asked the sewer district to extend service, but most homeowners have objected, Correa said.
More recently, some Arbolada residents asked about sewer extensions, but most residents adamantly opposed the plan. And after the 2005 floods in the Siete Robles tract along Thacher Creek, none of the residents favored a plan to include that subdivision in the sewer system because of the $17,000 to $20,000 cost per house, Correa said.
If operating properly, septic systems are a good alternative to sewers, he said. But septics can be problematic in high-density neighborhoods and if soils are not suitable or are wet.
“Septic systems can work just fine,” Correa said. “But they become less effective as density increases” or if the soil has too much clay or gravel.
Clay keeps the flow of wastewater from percolating and cleaning itself. Gravel allows the wastewater to flow so fast it doesn’t get clean and the waste winds up in creeks and rivers, he said. A “silty-sandy soil is probably the best,” he said.
Whether the septic is on a hillside or slope, or in a valley, is also a factor, he said. “For example, people on the upper Arbolada have no problems with septics, while on the lower Arbolada they have problems. And people on the hillsides of Los Encinos have no problems, while people in the valleys do.”
Correa said he expects the engineering firm — Harris and Associates — to report back to the sanitary district board within two months, and board action within three months. The board voted 5-1 on Monday evening to analyze the community facilities district option.
Director Bill Stone said he voted against the $35,000 study because he thought not enough thought had been given to that direction. And Stone, whose district includes Casitas Springs and Ventura’s North Avenue, said a district plan should consider lower-income homeowners who don’t have the assets to hook into the sewer even if their septic is failing.
“We’ve struggled with this issue for years,” he said. “And I think we’re getting closer to a solution. But we may not have something that works for low-income people.”
Director Russ Baggerly said he voted to pursue the new approach, but with reservations.
“I want to see the possibilities and the cost,” Baggerly said. “But I’m afraid this would be prohibitive for low-income families with failing septic systems.”
Correa said he had not yet heard any complaints about the new system not serving low-income residents.
But he said the new system would be far better than the old one, in which he discovered flaws after one of 19 residents with sewer connection loans filed for bankruptcy last December.
He found that the Sanitary District was only a “junior creditor” and would likely lose its loan money. The bankruptcy was canceled so the district’s money wasn’t lost.
But during the exercise, Correa said he found that state law did not directly authorize such loans from a government agency.
“This is the citizens’ money,” he said. “It isn’t an investment fund.”
So he focused on an alternative that has rarely been used by government agencies, setting up so-called Mello-Roos community services districts to provide improvements with the loans guaranteed by property owners. These districts were often used by developers in the 1980s to pay for infrastructure improvements in new subdivisions. They became notorious when only the early stages of those subdivisions sold as the 1990s housing depression set in, leaving those who bought early with huge debts.
But Correa said those problems don’t relate to what he’s doing here.
“Most (government) agencies don’t have such districts,” he said. “But it looks like a very viable program. It costs some money to develop this program (about $80,000), but we can use it like a cookie-cutter after we’ve done the first one.”

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