Sewer dispute comes to a head

The metaphorical poop may hit the grinder pump next Tuesday evening.

An uniquely contentious issue over a sewer system and who is going to pay for it will likely dominate the Oak Harbor City Council meeting. Wrapped up in controversy is an issue of how well the city communicates with the citizens and follows open government laws.

“The big-thumb squelching of information has been one of the hardest things to deal with,” said Mark Saugen, a resident of the Dillard’s Addition neighborhood.

A public hearing for the Dillard’s Addition sewer latecomer’s agreement is set for the 7 p.m. meeting. But while city staff originally scheduled the City Council to make a decision, City Administrator Paul Schmidt said they will now recommend delaying any final judgments to the Oct. 16 meeting.

“We want to make sure the citizens have ample time to review and consider all the information,” he said.

A new piece of information the council has to consider is a $12,000, independent review by an engineering company which has already became a subject of controversy.

But ultimately, Schmidt said city staff will likely recommend that the council approve the latecomer’s agreement, which means the 30 Dillard’s Addition residents will have to pay for the grinder-pump system that the city allowed a private developer to install without the knowledge of the majority of the homeowners. The latest estimate is that it will initially cost residents about $15,000 each, though the long-term costs could be more.

At the same time, Schmidt said the staff will recommend that the council waive the requirement that the residents hook up within six months after the latecomer’s agreement is approved and the city engineer issues a notice to connect. He said 18 months or more should give the city time to create an incentive program with low-interest loans for the residents — if the money can be found.

But this is unlikely to appease all the residents, the majority of whom are still on septic tanks. Four outspoken residents of the waterfront neighborhood — Robyn Kolaitis, Carroll Young, Duane Dillard and Saugen — said they want the council to simply reject the latecomer’s agreement.

They don’t like the grinder pump system for many reasons, including the fact that they don’t function in power outages. The residents would have to purchase, maintain and periodically replace the pumps, which could be expensive and mean days without sewer service if something goes wrong.

Also, they don’t feel the now-complete system was installed properly, though Schmidt said city engineers inspected and signed off on it.

The grinder pumps basically grind sewage into a liquid that can fit through small-diameter, pressurized pipes.

Moreover, the residents believe the city was wrong not to inform the neighborhood about the sewer system installation or allow them to have any input in the decisions.

“I don’t appreciate those choices being made for me by a developer who lives out of town,” Kolaitis said. “It feels intrusive.”

Schmidt agrees this was an oversight, though he said the city followed city code — a point the residents disagree on. He said the early notification requirement will be added to city code.

“This has been a learning process for us,” he said.

Kolaitis said she would have preferred a regular gravity system financed through a limited improvement district, or LID, which is a funding mechanism by which property owners would pay for the cost of infrastructure over time.

Saugen said the LID could have included a larger area — such as the proposed RV park under the Windjammer Plan — which conceivably could have lowered the costs for everyone.

On the other side, Schmidt said the developer — Rob Anderson of Granite Park Holding Company, LLC —did originally submit plans for a gravity system, but city engineers rejected the idea of having that kind of system in an environmentally sensitive area that’s below the water table. After all, the city has already had problems with pollution from both sewers and storm drains along the waterfront, plus it’s facing stricter regulations.

“We felt it was not an appropriate infrastructure in an area that is effected by hydraulic pressure of the tide,” Schmidt said.

There was also the question of cost. Schmidt said the cost of a grinder system is less for everyone involved, no matter how you look at it.

The gravity system was estimated to cost at least $540,000, while the grinder system cost about $170,000 for the developer to install — though each residents would have to spend thousands more on individual grinder pumps.

Under the proposal, each property owner will have to pay $5,656 to the developer in latecomer’s fees to cover the $170,000. On top of that, they will have to pay to connect to the pipes, to abandon their septic tanks, to configure electrical systems, and to purchase and install a grinder pump and sump. Over time, there’s also the cost of replacing and maintaining the pumps.

The city hired a Seattle firm, Gray and Osborne, to review the two types of systems. The draft report states that the pressurized system will save the residents more than $6,000 each over a 50-year life span. It states it would cost each resident about $18,644 over 50 years for a grinder system, while the gravity system would cost about $24,981.

Also, the grinder pump infrastructure saves the city about $73,000 over the 50-year period because it would avoid the costs of operating and maintaining a lift station and generators.

The report, however, has some math that city officials don’t completely understand.

Some of the residents aren’t pleased with the report because they felt the information considered was too narrow and that the timeline was too brief. Even the release of the “draft” report became a bone of contention with some the Dillard’s Addition residents. They wanted copies of the Sept. 7 report, but the city administration first wanted to allow city staff and council members to review it. Ultimately, Schmidt released copies Thursday.

The issue of public records and public meetings has only added to the controversy. City administration canceled a committee meeting when Kolaitis wanted to videotape it, even though the state attorney general issued an opinion that videotaping such meetings is permissible.

In addition, the four Dillard residents say the city hasn’t complied with their records requests. The residents said they made requests for all the documentation regarding the sewer system months ago. Last week, the city administration made a giant file of information available for their perusal.

In an email to Schmidt, Saugen said he spent six hours reading over the information, much of which wasn’t provided to him before.

“It is hard for me to comprehend how much information has been withheld from the public who have been requesting the information...” he wrote. “I am speechless that the City could hold onto these documents for so long and ignore our requests for them.”

Schmidt, however, said the city never intentionally held any information back and that the city clearly complied with the Open Public Records Act. He said it was unclear at times what information the residents wanted. Also, he said the city has limited resources for dealing with voluminous requests.

In the end, the members of the City Council have a tough decision ahead of them. And it appears that litigation may be on the horizon, no matter what they ultimately choose to do.

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