Friday, January 24, 2014
News Update on Property Rights: Septic Systems vs. Sewers
CHARLESTON - Property rights of water and sewer systems have caused controversy for West Virginians.
Delegate Larry D. Kump, R-Berkeley, has introduced a bill to prohibit any municipal or state public service district from forcing those in owner-occupied private residences to participate in a water or sewer system, except when private systems are proven unsafe or a public safety hazard.
"Berkeley County has this problem, but it's a statewide issue," Kump said. "The feedback I'm getting from people in my district and across the state is that they think that their septic systems are performing, by and large, on a higher level of efficiency than the public sewer systems."
When the public sewer district expands into a jurisdiction, the residential homeowners are not given a choice as to whether they want to hook up to the public sewer district, Kump said.
"This is not legislation on the whole issue of eminent domain," Folk said. "This legislation is just on the issues of these mandatory sewer hook-ups."
Under the law, if the bill becomes a law, it would not apply to residents who are currently connected to the system, Kump said. He said residents that have been exempted, but their septic systems become unsafe or stops functions, would not be exempt anymore.
In Berkeley County, if expansion occurs, residents maintain upkeep on what they own unless water or sewer was newly brought to the area. If a resident is within 300 feet, they have to hook on, residents are required to connect if it is not cost prohibitive, said Jennifer Hutson, sanitarian supervisor at the Berkeley County Health Department.
Kump said residents are concerned about the hook-up fees, which may costs thousands of dollars, followed by monthly fees.
"If they have a perfectly functioning and safe septic system, they don't feel like they should be coerced to hook up to a public system and pay a lot of money out of their almost empty pockets," Kump said. "A lot of people live from paycheck to paycheck. They just are terrified that they're going to be forced into these sewer hookups. They don't know where the money is going to come from."
Residents have taken out second mortgages or abandoned working, safe systems that they purchased during the public hookup transition, Kump said. He said there have been complaints that developers of small townhouses who do not have enough property to sustain a sewer system push for the public sewer system.
Kump said he decided to draft the bill when the sewer issue caught his attention, but the legislation affects homeowners and renters also with wells.
"The recent water crisis we've had-and are still struggling through the dregs of in the state capitol area- wouldn't have affected people that have private wells," Kump said. "That's not an indictment of the public water system, if people would have been on private wells."
The Berkeley County Public Service Water District does not force anyone to make a water connection, said Paul Fisher, executive director of the public service district.
"We can run a water line in the front of your house, and if you have a well, you just can use your well," said. "There's nothing in place that forces that issue. It's strictly voluntary."
Kump said some residents who have been required to hook up have taken legal action, such as one man who claims his property was damaged during the construction process and regulations were disregarded. He said some argue that participating in the public system makes it more cost efficient for those who hook up.
"Of all the responses I've gotten-and I've more than I can count-I did receive (responses) from two attorneys that were taking the other side that said that this would create a hardship if people were allowed to opt out."
Kump said there has been controversy regarding the efficiency and cleanliness of the public system in the past few years and strain on public sewage districts.
"Our public sewage districts are under tremendous pressure from the federal government-the Environmental Protection Agency-to upgrade what they are already doing," Kump said. "They are in a pinch financially. It's a mess."
Kump said he suggested West Virginia take a cue from the Washington Suburban Sanitary District, which serves Prince Georges and Montgomery counties in Maryland and does not require hookups to water or septic systems.
The WSSD held a public meeting before recently running a water line down a street in a residential area, said Jerry Irvine, public affairs manager for the WSSD.
"People were upset, but the short answer was, 'No,'" Irvine said. "Half of the people wanted to tie in, and the half wasn't required to. ... They make the judgment on whether it's a better value for them."
The WSSD, which has 1.8 million customers, has more than 11,000 miles of water and sewer pipes, Irvine said. He said the mandates depend on the area of each county.
"It's really about what residents in that area and/or legislatures do or do not want," Irvine said. "Folks who run septic and sewer (systems) feel like that's their system. They want to maintain it, and they don't want to tie it into a larger system. They have those rights. They pay their own maintenance fees."
Kump and Delegate Tiffany Lawrence, D-Jefferson, scheduled a public hearing for Jan. 21 in Charleston before the bill goes before the Political Subdivision Committee, chaired by Lawrence, Kump said. The public hearing was postponed due to the illness of Delegate Lawrence, Kump said. A new date has not been scheduled.
"This is a basic issue of citizens' property rights," Kump said. "If you live in a home, and what you're doing-whether it's with your septic system or anything else-and it's not a danger to your neighbors or yourself, then I don't think the government should have the prerogative to tell you to do otherwise, and in doing that, cause you to spend thousands and thousands of dollars that is hard to come by in these times."
Kump said if he has to move forward, he will make adjustments to the bill, which is pending.
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