Not 'if' but 'when' for south-end sewers

The south-end sewer issue is a genuine dilemma, in which there are no bad guys and no good answers.

The original plan was tidy enough – four areas that have experienced septic failures through a combination of small lots, proximity to the water and poor subsurface conditions asked for the city’s help in helping themselves. They wanted the city to sell bonds to pay for sewer lines, then form a district to tax the users to pay off the bonds.

Fearing that where sewers went, growth would follow, the city agreed, but only on certain conditions. The geographic boundaries would be tightly drawn. Those who did not want sewer service would not have to pay. And general taxpayers would not be involved.

None of those conditions has proved workable. It turns out that folks within the district boundaries can’t legally opt out – they can defer the individual costs of hooking up, but have to pay for the general infrastructure costs, meaning even those with good septic fields will pay something.

Worse still, overall costs have risen to the point that neighborhood approval is in doubt without some subsidy, and a plan to repay that subsidy calls for expanded boundaries – requiring another amendment to the Comprehensive Plan, and reopening the sewers-mean-density argument. And any way you look at it, the costs will be daunting.

There is a very real chance the whole plan will collapse, particularly in Emerald Heights, the area most in need.

What is needed, we believe, is a rethinking of the sewer-density equation.

The prevailing fear has been that if sewers are available, the state’s growth management mavens will ultimately require higher-density zoning at the south end. But the Central Puget Sound Growth Management Board addressed that issue some years ago, rejecting an argument by developers that the presence of sewers required rezones at Ferncliff and High School Road.

Septic systems arguably benefit the environment by providing water to recharge aquifers. While that may be true in many inland areas, it’s doubtful that systems immediately adjacent to Puget Sound discharge anywhere but into saltwater.

Ultimately, sewers along the south-end beaches and some inland areas like Emerald Heights is a “when” question, not an “if” question. State clean-water requirements are only going to tighten, and shoreside septic systems are an obvious target. And again, the Growth Management Board has addressed the issue, saying that Bainbridge (as a city) cannot avoid density by making sewers unavailable.

At the root the problem is an attempt to cheaply place urban infrastructure in a suburban area. And the least bad solution – not good, but least bad – is to expand service areas to spread the cost over more properties. That shouldn’t mean up-zoning or higher densities, nor does it mean extending service to the rest of the island.

The argument against sewers is based on fear. The argument for is based on tangible need, especially in Emerald Heights. It should prevail.

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