Garden Villas couple file lawsuit against Clean Water Services
A battle is brewing in the Garden Villas neighborhood of King City that is pitting neighbors against Clean Water Services, the county's sewer and stormwater management agency.
At issue is the main sanitary sewer line that lies beneath 213 townhomes in the neighborhood — and who will pay to repair or replace that main line when needed.
On Oct. 30, a lawsuit, specifically a class action complaint for declaratory judgment, was filed. Brant and Lisa Miller are the Garden Villas plaintiffs in the case, which is working its way into Washington County Circuit Court.
The Millers are contending the sewer system is public, and homeowners should not have to pay to replace a public sewer line. Clean Water Services argues the sewer system in that pocket of King City is private, and homeowners should bear the costs of fixing it.
Utility says sewers aren't in its system
The Garden Villas homes, built in the early 1970s, are located less than a mile west of Southwest Pacific Highway, or Highway 99W. The community is bounded to the south by Southwest Fischer Road, to the west by Southwest 131st Avenue, to the east by Southwest Monaco Lane and further extends about a block north of Southwest Morocco Street.
Of specific interest in the dispute are development plats that created the Garden Villas neighborhood. Lisa Miller noted the dedication in the plats say "public streets and easements." This would indicate the sewers were intended as public, according to the plaintiffs.
"It's deeded that way," she said.
The Millers contend that Clean Water Services "has unilaterally decided to treat the main sewer line beneath the homes of the Garden Villas senior citizens homeowners as private, even though the lines are intended to be public, as depicted on the plat maps, which were signed and approved by the county."
Lisa Miller said the plaintiffs want a judge to tell Clean Water Services they "can't unilaterally decide to treat sewers as private when the same language that created these lines was sufficient to make other sewer lines in the area public sewer lines."
A spokesperson for Clean Water Services, however, says the Garden Villas sewer system has never been under its jurisdiction.
"Some of the neighbors believe that those private sewer lines are, in fact, public and should be Clean Water Services' responsibility to maintain," said Mark Jockers, the agency's government and public affairs director. "Those sewer lines have never been mapped or maintained — this system has always been private because it was never dedicated to the public.
Referring to the aggrieved Garden Villas residents, Jockers added, "We took their concerns very seriously, and we asked a law firm to go through all the deeds and plats in the original layout of that subdivision, and found and confirmed what we believed, which is that that (sewer infrastructure) was never part of the public system."
A potentially expensive problem
The issue of ownership is surfacing now because Clean Water Services was approached last year by residents wondering whether the agency could help form what's called a local improvement district, or LID. By forming such a district, property-owners can share the costs of improving or replacing infrastructure, such as sewer and stormwater systems.
Clean Water Services has set up LIDs elsewhere when residents have wanted to get rid of their septic systems and hook up to public sewers.
"They specifically asked us to study the construction of a public sanitary sewer in a study area that encompassed those 213 residential lots in that neighborhood," Jockers said of the homeowners in the Garden Villas subdivision who expressed interest in forming a LID.
Clean Water Services approved a LID study in June 2018, Jockers said.
"We've been going through a process over the last year and a half working with those neighbors, looking at what might it take to build a public system to serve that neighborhood," Jockers said.
The legal dispute arose after Clean Water Services concluded that because the sewer lines are contained in utility easements beneath the Garden Villas homes, any "improvement" project would require those lines to be abandoned, and new lines would have to be installed beneath neighborhood streets or in public easements.
In August 2019, Clean Water Services mailed a letter to homeowners advising them that the agency now had an estimated cost for what it would take to replace what it considers the Garden Villas private sewer system beneath the homes with a more conventionally sited public system. If the project started right away, Clean Water Services said, it would cost about $4.5 million. Divided among 213 homes, the project would cost a Garden Villas household about $21,000, not including the hookup to the house.
Because the Garden Villas is an age-restricted (over 55) planned community for senior citizens, Miller is concerned about the financial burden that would place on residents.
The dispute has caused seniors to worry and has sparked strong feelings in the community.
Noting that some citizens are scared about the potential cost of the sewer project, Miller said, "That's the problem. Everyone I've talked to is on a fixed income — for most of these people, (their home) is their greatest asset. They love it. This is everything to them."
Clean Water Services suggested a 10-year payment plan in the Aug. 30 letter, with installments of $1,266.39 due twice yearly through 2030.
Sewers under homes carry risk
Jockers characterizes the work that was outlined as a "study," but the Millers' lawsuit calls it a "project."
"They would like to be able to move the sewers out into the street, which of course means creating new infrastructure for the streets, as well," Miller said of Clean Water Services.
She pointed out that the utility has not actually tested any of the pipes to determine whether replacement is necessary at this time.
"Anybody who has tested it, because they've sold their house, has found that there are no problems with existing sewer lines," Miller said.
In the Aug. 30 letter, Clean Water Services said it can't assess the sewers' condition "due to the private nature and risks involved," since the sewer lines run beneath homes on private property.
However, all sewer systems have a finite lifespan — and if the sewer lines beneath Garden Villas fail, a group of residents pushing to replace the system warned, the results could be catastrophic for homeowners.
"By the time you notice a failure, a lot of damage would have been done" to multiple houses, the Garden Villas Sewer Committee stated in a September 2019 FAQ sheet that was produced with input from Clean Water Services.
The FAQ sheet continued: "Depending on where you live on your street, you could have 10 additional homes depositing waste under your house. A health emergency would be declared and you would be moved out of your house along with any upstream neighbors until the problem is resolved."
Homeowners would be on the hook for the damage, and if a sewer line ruptured beneath a house, the building would have to be at least partially demolished so crews could go in, clean up the leak and conduct repairs, the FAQ sheet stated.
"You should check with your insurance agent and see if your insurance covers sewer repairs," it advised.
Miller thinks there's another reason Clean Water Services wants to get the sewer lines out from under the Garden Villas homes.
"The true reason for the move of the pipes is, in fact, a new pump is being installed on Fischer Road and Clean Water Services is concerned about backups," Miller said.
Jockers flatly denies that argument.
"There is no pump station downstream of this neighborhood and we have no concerns about backups," he said.
In a further argument, the plaintiffs state, "The reason the sewer pipes are under the houses is to protect them, not because they are private. The streets were originally designed and built as golf cart paths, and lack the proper infrastructure to protect the pipes."
Miller said, "We haven't had reports of sewer problems. Any problems that we've had are strictly having to do with the pipes inside somebody's house. So there really is no reason to have to move the main sewer line."
Residents upset over utility's response
Cast iron sewer lines like those buried beneath Garden Villas typically have an expected service life of 50 years, according to Clean Water Services. If so, that means they are at or nearing the end of their life expectancy.
If the sewers do need to be replaced, the Millers say, it should be Clean Water Services footing the bill — not residents.
The Millers' lawsuit asks for a declaratory judgment "that CWS has the sole obligation to maintain and, if necessary, replace the sewers pursuant to its duties as the public utility tasked with the authority to construct, maintain and operate sewage works in Washington County."
"We've paid sewer bills for 50 years — the sewer bills include a line item charge for sewer line construction and repair, so why would we think they were private?" Miller argued.
Jockers compared the Garden Villas setup to an apartment complex or mobile home park. Residents pay a sewer bill for their share of maintaining and operating the public sewer system and wastewater treatment plant in Durham — similar to a homeowner who must maintain his or her private driveway, but has to pay property taxes or fees for street upkeep.
Miller and Jockers also disagree on how well Clean Water Services has handled the dispute and responded to residents' questions and concerns.
"Many residents contacted Clean Water Services to get answers to their questions," Miller said. "Clean Water Services was annoyed and found the residents who resisted to be a pain and tried to intimidate them, ignore them and speak to them in a condescending manner."
Jockers responded, "The thing that I find disappointing is that we were asked to come help these folks. We have the expertise. We have staff that work on tough issues like this and meet neighbors on a regular basis, and that it's come to this, in terms of people thinking we've somehow done something underhandedly — we are here to serve. We're happy to meet with whomever and try to help solve problems there. Certainly we would never want to be in a position where we treat people poorly. They are our customers."
The Regal Courier reached out to the King City municipal government, but both Mayor Ken Gibson and City Manager Mike Weston declined comment for this story.
As of press time, a date has not been set for the case to begin in Washington County Circuit Court. Miller said she hopes both sides can come to an agreement beforehand.
"I don't want to have to go to court," Miller said. "I want them (Clean Water Services) to just realize that, 'whoops, we made a mistake.'"
Clean Water Services, however, seems inclined to let the legal process play out.
"Our focus is always on trying to resolve these issues — but this is a question of fact," Jockers said. "This is a private system. The neighbors have challenged that, and a court is the place to resolve the question."
Editor's note: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story misstated the author of a September 2019 FAQ about the effects of a sewer failure. The FAQ was produced and provided to community members by the Garden Villas Sewer Committee — a group of residents working with Clean Water Services to support a sewer replacement project in the Garden Villas neighborhood — with input from Clean Water Services. The story has been corrected.
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