Sierra Meadows residents, TSD at odds over sewer installations
A group of Sierra Meadows residents which filed suit last year against the Truckee Sanitary District attended its first mediation meeting with the district Tuesday in Sacramento, but all sides agreed nothing was accomplished.
“We just went to mediation with the TSD,” Sierra Meadows resident Carol White said. “They suggested that we go through mediation, and we didn’t really accomplish anything by it.”
She said residents Brad Brown and Steve Rakich also attended the conference, along with their attorneys, Bob Cohune, Larry King and Jeff Perry. The TSD was represented at the meeting by its attorney, Tom Barth.
TSD General Manager Oz Butterfield said the mediation went poorly because the plaintiffs want too much.
“At the present time, they are asking us to give them further concessions over and above what we do for everybody else,” Butterfield said. “We are trying to be very careful to treat everybody in the district the same.”
However, residents involved in the suit say the district’s actions had a significant financial impact on their lives, and want compensation.
The tort claim filed by property-owners Stephen W. Rakich and Matthew S. Mackenzie alleges that “sewers were constructed in and about the [neighborhood] in extreme haste, carelessly, recklessly and with wanton negligence.” The claim further states that the TSD, Butterfield and other district employees “harassed, threatened, intimidated and oppressed the [plaintiffs]” into cooperating by immediately connecting to sewers, telling them their homes would be ‘red tagged’ if they refused.
Nevada County and Placer County officials declared a state of emergency in the portion of Sierra Meadows where the plaintiffs live on July 22, 1997, requiring the district to install additional sewer lines in the area.
In the Aug. 7, 1997, edition of the Sierra Sun, Nevada County Environmental Health Department Supervisor Norm Greenberg said the sewer situation became a crisis because of the severe flooding earlier in the year, which brought the water table closer to the surface.
Greenberg said the affected area, which includes Shore Pine, Stone Pine, Golden Pine and Frond roads, has been experiencing septic problems since the 1970s, which have now become a risk to local residents.
Lahontan Regional Quality Control Board reported significant contamination of local water courses and drainages, with high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. County officials noted that a Lahontan staff member became ill in 1997 soon after taking samples from the affected area.
The suit states that Butterfield’s position as chair of Lahontan was a conflict of interest, because Lahontan regulates the operations of the TSD, and has the authority to force the TSD to declare an emergency.
After a state of emergency was declared, Lahontan and the other agencies requested TSD to provide sewer service to the 51 parcels in the subdivision. Residents were required to abandon their existing sewer systems, a process which included pumping remaining sewage from septic tanks,
destroying the tanks, and then filling them in with soil. They also had to pay the cost of hookup to the new sanitary sewer lines.
Some of the individual septic systems cost more than $15,000 each to install, and their owners were still making payments on them monthly.
The plaintiffs in the suit are also seeking to recover the costs of the sewer systems which they say residents were improperly forced to destroy, as well as unspecified damages, attorney fees and court costs. They are also asking for a court order preventing TSD from further action against them.
“The bottom line is that we feel Truckee Sanitary District as a public agency acts with no regard for due process or public scrutiny,” White said. “This was not based on a true need. There was no emergency in our neighborhoods.”
White said she and two other residents in the first phase of the sewer line project were forced to destroy new septic systems, ranging in cost from $15,000 to $20,000. The cost of destroying those systems and connecting to the TSD line may run as high as $10,000 more.
She said checks by the Nevada County Environmental Health Department and Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board indicated her system was fine.
The plaintiffs say that the human cost of the sewer installation has been high.
“These are all middle class working families with mortgages and other obligations out of their monthly salaries,” resident Charles Whitaker said. “One woman had to sell her house and move back to Idaho. An older man injured himself trying to do his own sewer installation work.”
Whitaker said his home is not hooked up to the TSD sewer system yet, because the TSD’s contractor placed the lateral line in a position where he would have to destroy a fence and landscaping to connect to it.
“I’m not even hooked up and they are charging me,” Whitaker said.
He questioned why the TSD gave more time to residents to hook up to the system, if it was such an emergency. Whitaker said the district gave him an extension of almost a year, until July 15, 1998, to complete his mandatory hookups.
“If it was pumping out raw sewage, why would they allow an extension of time?” Whitaker said. “If it’s such a health hazard, why haven’t they red-tagged my house? If it’s such a health hazard, why haven’t they done anything?”
Whitaker, who has an older system, said he’s open to connecting TSD sewer service to his house, but wants the lateral line placed in a different location.
“What has me upset is how they handled this whole process,” he said.
Resident Brad Brown recently added an additional $135,000 claim to his part of the lawsuit. The lien TSD placed upon his property until he paid for the mandatory sewer hookup prevented him from refinancing and taking advantage of lower interest rates.
“It’s a loss I’ve incurred directly,” Brown said. “I’ve been ordered to destroy a brand-new septic system, and the TSD lien stopped a $135,000 in savings on a 30-year loan.”
He disagreed with district procedure as well.
“You can’t just fly through and say everyone hooks up, good or bad,” Brown said.
Butterfield said the TSD had no choice except to proceed the way it did.
“In 1997, Nevada and Placer counties wrote us a letter and said they had determined there was a health hazard in the neighborhoods and requested that we hook them (the affected neighborhoods) up to sewers,” Butterfield said. “They gave us specific lots to hook up immediately to avoid a health hazard in the area. We had no alternative but to accede to the counties’ wishes and hook them up as quickly as possible.”
He said the affected lots have problems because of geology.
“This is a situation where geology will not allow the effluent to be treated,” Butterfield said. “The geology is mainly fractured rock, which does not allow it to get treated properly.”
Butterfield said the district attempted to accommodate the needs of the residents as much as possible, given the emergency nature of the hookups.
“Our board was very sympathetic to the fact that they had to do this in a hurry.” Butterfield said. “Normally, we would give them a year to hook up. This time, we had to hook them up immediately, but gave them a year to pay connection fees.”
He said the district also financed the installation of the sewer line with its own funds instead of bonds.
“We were able to get that at a 4 percent interest rate instead of 7 percent rate,” Butterfield said.
In addition he said that the total cost of installation is not being passed on to Sierra Meadows residents.
“Although it cost about $12,000 per residence to run lines up there, we are only charging them about $4,000,” Butterfield said. “We anticipate that it will become a larger network later, and future users will take up a portion of the costs.”
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