Donner Tract homeowners: Truckee PUD "lied": Utility district says it was all a mistake
The Truckee Donner Public Utility District is calling it a “mistake.” Some homeowners in Donner Tract are calling it “deception.”
The Donner Tract Homeowners Association says a good faith agreement with the utility district went awry when a utility district employee told the homeowners that they wouldn’t have to pay for their customer laterals – the pipe that hooks individual homes into the meter box. Then some of the homeowners were charged for the piping.
Donner Tract Homeowners Association President Scott Saibini presented a letter to the utility district board last month saying the TDPUD employees lied to and deceived Donner Tract homeowners.
“We were told that we had a very unique system and that by utilizing some of our existing pipes that we would have every house hooked up at no charge to the homeowners,” Saibini said.
Donner Tract homeowners continued to meet with TDPUD employees. That’s when, Saibini says, the utility district took the offer back, saying a handful of homeowners would have to pay for the laterals.
Then more homeowners began receiving invoices from the utility district with charges for the pipeline.
Saibini said many of the homeowners in the 37-house tract are retired and on a fixed income. The cost the utility district charged to connect to the system – which ranges from $200 to $4,340 – has hit the homeowners hard, Saibini said. Some homeowners were connected at no charge.
“We wanted the system done, now we’re coming back to the PUD asking for what you said you would give us,” Saibini told the utility district board Wednesday night.
Donner Tract’s unique situation
Donner Tract has a unique piping situation compared to the other developments around Donner Lake. Unlike other tracts around the lake, the homes in Donner Tract were not hooked up to Del Oro’s water system and most of the houses were connected to a small, privately owned system.
As the utility district formed the Donner Lake assessment district for former Del Oro system, the utility district decided to build the new water system with a hookup to Donner Tract in case their private system ever failed.
After the Nevada County Department of Health threatened to shut Donner Tract’s water system down, the homeowners association decided to hook up to the TDPUD’s assessment district along with the rest of the lake.
The utility district has described the construction of Donner Tract’s water system as “haphazard,” with pipes installed at various times without planning for future construction.
When the original system was built decades ago, “they basically hooked it up however they thought it could work,” said assistant general manager Steve Hollabaugh.
Although the TDPUD’s initial design did not utilize any of the existing piping in Donner Tract, homeowners association representatives said they wanted to utilize as much of the existing system as possible to save money.
That’s when water system engineer Neil Kaufman told the homeowners that they would be connected at no charge.
However, it is TDPUD policy that water customers are responsible for the piping from the meter box to their home. Usually, Hollabaugh said, the utility district has nothing to do with the customer lateral.
In succeeding meetings, utility district employees told the association that some of the homeowners would have to pay for their laterals. The utility district worked out a joint trench agreement with Southwest Gas to save customers and the district money. The utility district began opening bids on the project and Saibini was provided with bid results.
Saibini asked the TDPUD if homeowners could hire their own contractors to do the work that would be paid for by the homeowners. Some homeowners did find a contractor, but Saibini was unable to hire a contractor and agreed to allow the utility district’s winning bidder to continue with the work, according to utility district reports.
Hollabaugh said he thought Saibini had told the homeowners association about the joint trench agreement with Southwest Gas.
“Part of this problem was miscommunication with their own homeowners association,” Hollabaugh said.
In the summer, Kaufman held individual meetings with property owners to discuss the unique aspects of each property and the cost to connect to the water system.
In the last month, Kaufman mailed letters to homeowners detailing the costs and requesting payment.
Upon receiving the invoices, the homeowners association brought its complaint to the utility district.
“We probably won’t stick our neck out on this side of the meter for the customer anymore,” Hollabaugh said.
Board makes a decision
After much back-and-forth between utility district board members and Donner Tract homeowners, the TDPUD directors voted Wednesday night to return the issue to its counsel and staff.
“I hear that we make a mistake in communicating and that’s a bad thing,” said board President Ron Hemig about Kaufman initially telling the homeowners that the laterals would be free. “We shouldn’t be doing that, but I don’t see that as deception and bad faith dealing … I’m having a hard time making that connection.”
Director Jim Maass voted against sending the matter back to the utility district’s attorney and staff.
“It’s pretty obvious what happened,” Maass said. “I don’t see anything changing between now and when staff brings this back.”
The board of directors should make a decision on the matter at their Oct. 14 special meeting.
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