Sewer Surprise!

Many residents of the Dillard’s Addition, an Oak Harbor waterfront neighborhood, were surprised when work crews started digging up their streets.

They were even more shocked to learn that a unique type of sewer system was being installed and that they would have to help pay for it, to the tune of an estimated $15,000 to $20,000 for each household.

Several of the residents complained at the Oak Harbor City Council meeting held Tuesday night.

“Being kept out of the loop has created a great deal of turmoil in my neighborhood and has created a lot of distrust in the city of Oak Harbor,” said Duane Dillard, a 40-year resident of the neighborhood, which was named after his parents.

As Dillard explained, the residents aren’t just upset that they weren’t notified about the project, but they don’t like the type of pressurized sewer system that was chosen for them.

“We would have liked to have some input,” he said.

In an unusual response to public comments, City Administrator Paul Schmidt defended the city staff, explaining that city code was followed. He pointed out that staff held a special meeting for the residents after they complained. But he hinted that the code may need to be tweaked.

“That’s not to say this is a perfect system,” he said.

Councilman Larry Eaton pointed out that this wasn’t the first time that residents have complained about a lack of communication coming from city staff. Afterward, he said while he has great respect for the dedicated staff, communication continues to be a problem — from changing the zoning on car dealerships without letting them know to simply not returning phone calls.

“Even if we had to hand carry the message to the public, we should have done that,” Eaton said.

On March 6, the Oak Harbor City Council OK’d the preliminary approval of a latecomer’s agreement submitted by Rob Anderson of the Granite Park Holdings Company LLC. His company is constructing two houses in the neighborhood and they need to connect to city sewers. He proposed extending sewer lines to the entire subdivision and applying for a latecomer’s agreement, under which residents would reimburse him for the cost of the lines when they hook in.

City Attorney Phil Bleyhl said the neighborhood, which annexed into the city in 1992, was supposed to be hooked into sewers soon thereafter under the annexation agreement.

Bleyhl wrote the city code dealing with sewer construction and public notice years ago. He admits that he only had gravity sewers in mind when he wrote it, which are the typical system and are unlikely to cause controversy.

As Bleyhl explained it, the city isn’t required to tell the neighborhood residents of the meeting for preliminary approval of the latecomer’s agreement. He said most communities don’t even hold a meeting for preliminary approval. But he said there’s nothing that would have stopped the city from notifying residents as a courtesy, though it was advertised in the News-Times.

Bleyhl said notice is required, however, for the more-significant meeting for final approval of the latecomer’s agreement. At that meeting, which will be held after construction is complete, the council will decide whether to approve the latecomer’s agreement and if the cost of building the system — a cost which will be passed on to the residents — is reasonable.

Yet Dillard points out that now it’s too late for residents to have any input into the system itself. He said that, with the unique type of system, each residence will have to have its own pump and grinder. He heard that the pumps have to be replaced after five years. The homeowners will be left without sewage service when the power goes out, unless they have individual generators.

Dillard said Anderson originally designed a regular gravity system, but switched because it was too expensive.

“I would have rather had a simpler, hassle-free system,” Dillard said.

While Bleyhl said city code states that the 26 homes currently on septic systems need to connect to the sewer system as soon as it’s complete, he said the council could decide to give residents some leeway.

In response to the controversy, Councilman Paul Brewer made a motion to set the issue on the agenda for the next council meeting, but the other council members rejected the idea. Councilwoman Sue Karahalios suggested a workshop.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynews or call 675-6611.

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