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Sewer system comes back to haunt Oak Harbor

An Oak Harbor sewer controversy from four years ago has bubbled to the surface once again.

Most of the residents of the small waterfront neighborhood of Driftwood Beach Addition signed a petition requesting a local improvement district, commonly known as an LID, to build a gravity sewer system to connect their homes to the city’s system.

The problem is that there’s already another type of sewer system in place, though the majority of residents didn’t ask for it and don’t like it.

“It’s an environmental nightmare. It’s an economic nightmare,” resident Kenneth Manni said.

After lengthy discussion Tuesday, the council voted to direct city staff to explore the cost-benefit of a gravity system, but capped the amount of staff time dedicated to the project not to exceed $25,000.

Still, it may be an expensive turn of events for the city since the proposed LID would mean the city will never recoup most of its $124,000 investment in the current low-pressure sewer pipes in place.

Four years ago, the majority of residents of the neighborhood, which was then known as Dillards Addition, were surprised when construction workers began digging up their street. It turned out that city officials had allowed a contractor to put in a low-pressure, grinder-pump sewer system, which they expected the residents of the 30 homes to hook into and pay for through latecomers fees.

That’s when the metaphorical poop hit the fan. Many of the residents were upset that they weren’t notified and didn’t have any input in the type of system. Some felt it was put in illegally and questioned the city’s relationship with the contractor; some residents felt the city wasn’t open with records.

After threats of lawsuits, the city council voted to purchase the disputed sewer lines, then required residents to hook up and pay their share within five years.

But at the same time, the city council encouraged the residents to look into forming an LID, which is a funding mechanism for infrastructure projects under which residents who receive the improvements pay for them over time.

In response, all but a handful of residents signed a petition for an LID. The homeowners simply don’t like the low-pressure system, which doesn’t work in power outages and requires residents to maintain grinder pumps.

Yet city staff members have serious concerns with the idea. Bill Hawkins, the acting city attorney, said he discussed the issue with an expert in the area of LID-related law. He explained that, under an LID, residents can only be assessed if an improvement increases the value of the property; the assessment can’t be more than the increase in value.

Since there’s already a sewer system in place, Hawkins said, a new gravity line wouldn’t increase the home values any further, so the homeowners couldn’t legally be assessed through the LID. That could be remedied, he suggested, if the council adopts a resolution preventing further connections to the low-pressure system.

In addition, City Administrator Paul Schmidt suggested that five-year deadline for hookups be postponed, along with the LID, so that the city can first finish city-wide planning for sewer systems.

In an interview afterward, resident Robyn Kolaitis said the estimated cost for gravity sewer lines and a pump station is $622,000, but that the cost should be spread out to 196 current and future homes in the area. She worries, however, that city staff will try to limit the LID to just the 31 homes in the Driftwood Beach Addition.

Tuesday, the city council members spoke in support of the Driftwood Beach Addition residents’ request, though Councilman Rick Almberg questioned why they would want to bear the cost of new sewer lines when they already have an adequate system. As a developer, he said he has low-pressure systems in buildings he owns and in those he built.

“Some of the systems have been in for 20 years and we haven’t had any problems,” he said.

Councilmen Scott Dudley and Jim Campbell suggested that the city council hold a meeting to discuss the residents’ accusations against the city regarding alleged improprieties in the past, but other council members said they shouldn’t dwell on mistakes.

“I hope we can avoid this becoming a political issue in a campaign year,” Almberg said.

But while a number of people emphasized that the controversy occurred under a past mayor, Kolaitis pointed out that the staff members who made the controversial decisions four years ago are still with the city.

“I don’t have a lot of faith that staff will be fair with us,” she said.

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