County to assist Windmaster residents in sewer system fix


News staff writer

April 22, 2006

There’s no way around it: Installing a sewer system at Windmaster Corner is going to be expensive.

But the 98 homes sitting in the area where septic systems are failing could find it even more costly if something is not done soon. Hood River County stands to lose $600,000 in federal grant funds that have been banked since 2001.

Dave Meriwether, county administrator, said officials have already gained one extension for use of the money. Congress intended it to be invested into the project by September of 2004.

“This is our opportunity to use a substantial amount of federal funding to address the problem. It’s not going to get cheaper and we have to move forward now,” said Meriwether.

He said the reluctance of Windmaster residents to proceed has been understandable. Each affected household will face a significant monetary outlay to access the recommended $2.2 million system.

Meriwether said the county and a citizen advisory committee have been working for the past year to streamline costs. They are also hopeful that only households with septic problems will be required to hook up to the sewer main line.

“If this was something that was easy to do the county wouldn’t have been struggling with the funding for 20 years. But the time has come for us to do something about this situation,” he said.

Meriwether said firm figures about the public/private cost of a sewer are being nailed down by Berger/ABAM Engineering, Inc. The Portland-based consulting firm will bring final estimates to the local citizen group within the next month. And then the Hood River County Commission will schedule an informational meeting to brief Windmaster residents about the plans.

“I expect that before this year is over it’s going to be under construction,” said Meriwether.

He said it was initially tabulated that each Windmaster household would pay about $100 per month for the public share of installing infrastructure and the $37 service charge. He is hopeful that cost can be lowered since the boundaries of the health hazard area have been reduced. And the county plans to seek other federal and state grant funds to further defray as many expenses as possible.

Dan Johnston, consulting engineer, provided rough estimates on Thursday about the private costs that will could borne by homeowners. Although the City of Hood River will bring main lines to the border of each property, the residents shoulder the expense of laying the pipe to their dwellings.

According to Johnston, that expense is expected to be about $1,000 for a 4-inch line that extends 75 feet — if the property sits high enough for a gravity flow.

If a grinder pump is necessary — as it will be for low-lying areas — he said the cost will rise to about $4,500 per household.

In addition, the city’s connection fee for sewer access is $1,400 and the sewer district could add a surcharge to build up a fund to offset maintenance costs.

Meriwether has been working with Windmaster citizens for the past year to help find the least expensive fix. But, the conclusion at Tuesday’s meeting was that there was no way to avoid a large outlay of capital.

However, residents and officials attending the April 18 brainstorming session could see one bright spot from the investment. Windmaster property values — now lower than average — will most likely go up once the health hazard has been eliminated.

Two decades ago, county officials became aware that an unsanitary situation was occurring intermittently across a 130-acre swath of ground. Some of the properties between Windmaster Corner and Portland Drive set over a concrete-like sub layer that could not be penetrated by water runoff. That caused the soil to easily become saturated and flood drain fields.

For years, residents had reported seeing raw sewage in ditches, smelling a “rotten meat” odor and walking on yards that were “spongy.”

Health experts tested contaminated soil in the area and found measurable amounts of e coli, giardiasis and several strains of hepatitis. Ellen Larsen, director of the county’s health department, said in 2004 that it was a matter of “when” not “if” someone became ill.

“When you drive by the ditches in this area they are extremely lush, more lush than usual because of all the fertilizer,” said Darryl Barton, the county’s environmental health specialist.

He said the county has been actively working to find a solution to the problem since 1992. That year, local officials began conferring with the state’s Health Hazard Studies program to declare an emergency. The designation would allow an exception to state law that prohibited the extension of sewer services beyond a city’s Urban Growth Boundary.

However, an emergency declaration also required that the county find a remedy — or face potential sanctions. But Windmaster voters nixed a $1.5 million bond levy in 2004 that would have paid some of the costs associated with the project. The county board then charged citizen advisors with exploring all of the available options and making recommendations.

Last year, the committee met about every six weeks and eventually managed to narrow the scope of the hazard area. Instead of having 124 homes included, they identified 98 residences that sat squarely in the danger zone.

However, some of these landowners were not experiencing problems with their septic systems. So citizens didn’t want to force them to hook up to a sewer until that system failed or needed to be replaced.

“I figure I’ve got most of you beat, I’m 82 years old and I’ve got a 2-year-old septic system,” said Russ White, who resides on Barrett Drive and demanded no mandatory hookups.

However, Ray Bartlett, an infrastructure specialist working with Berger/ABAM, anticipates funding problems if all Windmaster residents do not hook up at the same time.

Bartlett said both state and federal grant agencies are hesitant to turn over money without full community participation. And lending institutions might not be amenable to a low-interest loan unless all citizens chipping in on the repayment costs.

“We’re trying to do what’s best for all of us,” said McAllister, chair of the citizen committee. Meriwether will now ask the county board to approve the formation of a sewer district. He said that will get the ball rolling on the project.

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