Sand spit sewer costs overflow

How much would you pay to get off your septic system?

Residents of Point Monroe and Lafayette Avenue may have to seriously consider that question if plans to connect to a proposed state sewer facility are to continue.

The Fay Bainbridge sewer project began over two years ago with a state Legislature mandate to curb the environmental impacts of state parks on the Puget Sound. Since then, the sewer has evolved into a complex, hybrid, State Park Commission/private landowner enterprise that has devoted significant city and private resources to the Point Monroe Drive and Lafayette Avenue neighborhoods of north Bainbridge Island.

Now the State Parks Commission has re-allocated funding for the project, leaving the Fay Bainbridge sewer unfunded and proponent citizens scrambling for alternatives. Further debate over how much private citizens should contribute to the sewer’s costs are also hampering progress. If state funding for the project isn’t fully realized, each contributing landowner could pay more than $30,000 for a share of the project, or worse yet, the proposed Fay Bainbridge sewer system could be put off indefinitely.

“Right now it is hinging on what (the state) expects the city’s participation to be,” Public Works Director Randy Witt said. “There is a large difference in those costs.”

The city’s share of the sewer’s initial construction cost was estimated to be between $200,000 and $250,000. That amount, split evenly among participating private residents of the two neighborhoods, would cover upgrades that would make it possible for residents to pump their wastewater into the nearby Fay Bainbridge sewer.

It is also estimated that each participating homeowner would have to pay at least $13,000 to cover the cost of constructing and connecting to sewer infrastructure. Costs could also increase if electrical wires are put underground and if residents have to pay for a larger share of the sewer’s construction. Conjectures on annual debt service and loan interest rates also vary widely this early in the project.

The symbiotic relationship between the State Park Commission and private residents is the first of its kind, according to Terri Heikkila, the special projects program manger at the State Parks Commission.

“We’ve never had projects like this, we’ve never worked with a neighboring community where we are trying to partner. This is all new ground for the state,” she said.

Because of this unique arrangement, commission members have indicated that they may want the city (by way of private residents) to pay for half of the sewer’s projected costs. Originally it was assumed the state agency would build the facility itself and then accommodate the nearby neighborhoods because the size of the system would allow it.

“Parks is starting to suggest we should share costs equally in this,” Witt said. “That’s not how the project started and it doesn’t follow the arc of this process... Suddenly, you are bringing the city in to lower the (sewer construction) costs.”

According to Heikkila, funding the project was never formally discussed and the unique situation, coupled with the state’s own financial troubles, warrants some compromise on the project’s funding.

“We had never gotten to that discussion,” she said regarding the division of costs, also noting that the commission only proceeded to “design the sewer” with the ability for neighborhoods to connect in the future.

“It is a desirable project, especially with the involvement of the neighboring community. But State Parks will not be a sewer provider,” Heikkila said. “The state is paying for this program, but we have to be careful it’s not just giving it away to the public either. So we are trying to balance it to be a win-win situation.”

Having to pay over $30,000 to help build and connect to a sewer system could be a wedge issue between the Point Monroe and Lafayette communities. Lafayette landowners have larger land parcels that can accommodate septic tanks. Those on the Point Monroe have limited space for new septics.

“The next weighing point for the community is if the cost of the sewer is greater than the cost of keeping septic,” Witt said. “There are different cost thresholds for different households.”

But the high price tag could also undermine original support for the project. A preliminary poll conducted by the sewer steering committee found an 85 percent citizen approval rate for the project before financial setbacks came to light. If the city and local residents were to move forward with their end of the sewer plans, they would have to form a council-approved Local Improvement District (LID), which would bind residents to the project (and its costs) unless it can be shown that 60 percent of residents were against the project.

Despite the costs, there is still a strong argument that the sewer will increase water quality – the original justification for the sewer project.

“Spits are very fragile habitats by nature,” said Peter Namtvedt Best, the city’s shoreline planner. “They usually are sensitive spawning grounds and wetland areas.”

Much of the proposed sewer expansion relies on the assumption that switching to sewer will positively impact surrounding bodies of water. However, both Best and Witt said there has never been a study of the environmental impacts of Point Monroe’s septic tanks on the lagoon or the Puget Sound.

According to Keith Grellnar at the Kitsap County Health District, more than 50 percent of septic upgrades in the area are the result of landowners expanding their properties, not failed septic systems. The expansion of sand-spit septics has nearly come to a halt since 2005 when new state regulations called for stricter buffer zones between septic fields and high-tide levels.

“Its complex,” Grellnar said. “But the health district’s position is that we don’t have evidence of significant or documented sewage system issues. However, due to the small lot sizes we have concerns for the future of the sand spit, and it is not every day that a sewer opportunity arises. So we are recommending the area hook up.”

On Point Monroe, septic tanks are also preventing at least 10 land parcels of land from being developed. It is the only area on the island, besides downtown, that is zoned R-6, meaning up to six residential homes per acre are technically allowed to be built. An additional nine homes could be built in the Lafayette area with either sewer or septic systems.

Currently, local advocates are trying to expand their funding options in the event that the State Parks Commission’s funding falls through. The sewer’s citizen steering committee is discussing options that range from petitioning members of the state Legislature to applying for Department of Ecology grants that could reduce overall project costs. Still, Witt said, the project relies on the impetus of the State Parks Commission.

“I’m optimistic, it is a good group of people who are anxious to get the sewer into their area and get off their septic tanks,” Witt said. “But the main decision point is, does the park district build the plant at all? If they don’t build it, we don’t have a project.”

More than $1.5 million was originally allocated to the Fay Bainbridge sewer project, but that funding went instead to Fort Flagler State Park near Port Hadlock. The Flagler project, a sewer system similar to the one planned at Fay Bainbridge, has exceeded budget. Because these sewer systems are exceeding budget, the Fay Bainbridge project could potentially cost more as well, according to Heikkila.

Now, state parks has included the Fay Bainbridge sewer project in their 2009-2011 budget request. It is one of 28 State Park Commission projects that will compete for funding in a Legislature grappling with a projected multi-billion dollar budget deficit.

“There are a lot of unknowns, but we’re still trying to get funding,” Heikkila said. “It’s going to be a tough session this year, so I am hoping if we can keep the city moving forward along with us we will eventually be successful.”

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