Point White calls for sewer service
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:08 PM
"Point White has joined the list of neighborhoods calling for south-end sewer service.It's a matter of environmental impact, said Point White Drive resident John Herber. Eventually, septic systems wear out. I think it's an evolution as the island population grows, and it will come to everybody sometime.While they it may be the latest in the sewer-service queue, the Point White neighborhood's view is echoed in a study commissioned by the city. Waterfront homes on the southern third of the island should be connected to sewer lines as soon as possible, according to a draft report from local consultants.And although the geology of that area makes sewer connections especially critical, salmon-related environmental regulations could eventually require sewers on much, if not all, of the island's waterfront.The geology in the south end is particularly bad, Mayor Dwight Sutton said. But with the high densities on the shoreline and the importance of not polluting the near-shore feeding areas, I think it's reasonable to predict that at some point, we'll need sewers rather than septic systems on all the shores.The sewer question arose last year when two factors converged - exceptional need and opportunity.The need, always present, became exceptional when two near-record wet winters led to widespread overloads and failures of septic systems, particularly in Emerald Heights and the northerly portion of Pleasant Beach. The opportunity was the 1996 completion of the $3 million Fort Ward sewer treatment plant, owned and operated by Kitsap County Sewer District No. 7. The plant not only has excess capacity now, but is designed for enough modular expansion to ultimately accommodate as many as 2,200 residences.The plant will permit out-of-district connections, but only under certain conditions, district commissioner Sarah Lee said.The critical conditions are that the new connections not cost district rate-payers anything, that the existence of a sewer line not increase building density, and that connection either relieves a sewer emergency or provides a public benefit, such as enabling a park to be built.Decisions on density are up to the city, Lee said. The sewer district shouldn't make those decisions, so we don't want sewer to be the deciding factor on land-use policy.According to city administrator Lynn Nordby, the sewer issue really came into focus last summer, with reports of failing septic systems in Emerald Heights and Pleasant Beach. We had people coming into the office in tears, wondering what they could do, he said.When a public meeting on extending sewer lines was held last October, Rockaway Beach residents showed up in force, saying that septic systems there were also failing.The city then commissioned a consultant study on south-end sewer needs. The draft report, authored principally by engineers Richard Esvelt of Bainbridge Island and Einer Gundersen of Redmond and island architect Bill Isley, was given to the city in May.According to the report, the septic-system problems involve both geology and history. The southern third of the island is mostly underlain either by bedrock or by heavy clay soil, either of which hinders percolation of liquid material from the septic tanks into the surrounding soil.Historically, the interior of Bainbridge was sparsely settled farmland. The shorelines, however, were densely built with summer homes, many of them little more than cabins, on small lots.In recent years, as island property values have soared, shoreline cabins have been replaced with much larger houses, which need larger septic systems. But with the small lots, it can be hard to place the drain fields, particularly when setback requirements are involved.And that brings in the third factor - increasingly stringent anti-pollution regulations.These trends support ultimately serving all waterfront locations (with sewer) to eliminate the potential for beach contamination and to restore polluted beach conditions, the draft report says. Last November, the South Bainbridge Community Association expressed concern about the consultants' conclusion that sewer service should be widely extended in the south island. While the association supported sewer service to the neighborhoods that had experienced widespread and significant failures, it questioned whether the consultants could assume either a widespread problem of widespread public support outside those areas.SBCA president Iver Macdougall said Friday that the association's position on south-end sewers has not changed.Macdougall said that while the association questioned some of the underlying assumptions of the sewer study, it believes the decision on sewer is up to the individual neighborhoods.If they determine after proper investigation of the costs and other factors that they want it, that's their business, he said. Progress on implementing the report has ground to a halt because of Initiative 695. The citizen-passed measure that rolled back the motor vehicle excise tax also required a vote on all future tax or fee increases.The initiative, though, did not specify who would have to vote on what tax increases.And that's the problem. Sewer connections would be paid for by forming Utility Local Improvement Districts (ULIDs) under city sponsorship in areas that need sewers. Bonds would be sold to pay for the infrastructure, which would be repaid by assessments on property within the district.The bond attorneys, who are a conservative bunch, say that you could only form an LID if you had a citywide vote, Nordby said. And whether they're right or wrong, you can't sell bonds without a favorable opinion from the attorneys.King County Superior Court Judge Robert Alsdorf declared I-695 unconstitutional, in significant part because of ambiguities about the voter-approval requirement. The Washington Supreme Court is currently considering an appeal of Alsdorf's ruling.I-695 threw a massive monkey wrench into our work, said consultant Esvelt.The affected neighbors are resigned to the delay. The situation hasn't changed, said Kelly MacDonald of Emerald Heights, one of the area residents who experienced septic-system problems last summer. But we understand that I-695 is one of those things that's outside anyone's control. Once the I-695 situation is resolved and actual hookup work moves forward, a portion of Pleasant Beach, Rockaway Beach and Emerald Heights will be first in line, because they have already submitted petitions to the city to form a ULID.Other south-end neighborhoods are lining up to join the party. It's inevitable that we'll have to go to sewer, said Linda Olsoe of Point White Drive, who is trying to organize her neighbors to support connecting to a sewer. She has scheduled a meeting of Point White Drive residents for 1 p.m. Aug. 26 at the Island Center hall to discuss the situation. Most of the homes sitting on the water have very old septic systems, she said. Some people want to expand or remodel, and there are lots that could be built on with a sewer. Plus I'm concerned about the pollution I may be doing. So there are lots of motivations.While Point White residents may have the motivation to connect to a sewer system, they may not have the immediate opportunity. Lee said that the sewer plant presently has room for 150 hookups from outside the district. Once they are gone - and their allocation will be up to the city - new out-of-district connections won't be available until the plant expands.Because the plant was designed to permit modular expansion, the physical work involved will be relatively easy and inexpensive. Lee estimated the cost of the first expansion, which would add roughly 500 hookups to the plant's capacity, at roughly $1 million.The true cost, though, will be the time and effort involved in the permitting process, Lee said. She estimated the public-input process could take from two to five years, and said that because the district has no salaried administrators, planning efforts will be out-of-pocket costs to the district.When and if the new hookups come, they won't be cheap. For the existing 150 hookups, the district will charge $7,500 apiece, plus a late-comers fee of that presently amounts to roughly $600, and is increasing at $20 per month.But that's only part of the cost. The piping and pumping equipment at the user's house and in the user's neighborhood is additional. At some point, Lee said, capacity at the Lynwood Center pumping station will be reached, and a new pumping station will be required, with those costs again borne by new users.But expensive though it may be, sewer connections are probably a cost-effective alternative in much of the area, Nordby said.Where space is limited and soil is poor, septic systems can be very costly, he said, noting that such systems can cost as much as $35,000. And even then, if the system's only going to be good for a few years, people start saying 'Why bother?' "