Homeowners eager to move to sewer, but price point is daunting
In the wake of the 2017 fires, as homeowners in the Larkfield Estates neighborhood found themselves contemplating the rebuild process, the idea of moving from their individual septic systems to a sewer connection became a conversation.
In the time since then, there’s been a lot of discussion and negotiation, and many of the homeowners do want to move forward, but a steep price tag — which will not be covered by insurance — has continued to prove a challenging hurdle to overcome.
Most of the houses in the neighborhood were built in the late1960s and early 1970s, a time when individual septic systems would have been the normal choice. Sheri and Gena Jacob’s home was built in 1972, and while they’d lived with its septic system for 20 years, they tried to see the devastation of the fires as the possibility for improvement.
“When we learned that our neighborhood was completely devastated, everyone started coming together, trying to figure out who was going to rebuild and what infrastructure needed to be put in place. So, we were thinking individually and then as a neighborhood, then for our community, ‘How are we going to put all this back for our community?’” said Gena Jacob. “Our septic systems was obviously one of those topics that came up. We never thought there would be an opportunity for this neighborhood to have a sewer option. Individually, it’s just pretty expensive to do. But, some of our neighbors started contacting the Sonoma County Water Agency, asking them if there was even a possibility and they said let us look into it. Then they started getting more people interested and contacting them and that’s how the ball started rolling.”
Initial conversations were rocky, as some neighbors balked at the idea of the switch being mandatory, while others found the costs, which would not be covered by insurance, were just too far out of reach.
In time, the county came to offer and financing package to homeowners, and made participation in the hook up optional. (See sidebar.) However, challenges still exist.
For homeowners like the Jacobs, according to Gena, they have had to pay for the construction of a sewer lateral on the property, then will be expected to pay the county somewhere between $50,000 and $65,000 for the lines to be laid throughout the neighborhood. Then, the county charges an additional $12,000 connection fee for attaching the sewer lateral from the home to the new infrastructure.
None of these items can be covered by insurance, since they didn’t exist pre-fire, and for people like the Jacobs whose homes has been completed enough to be livable, they still had to install a septic system, because the sewer won’t be ready until 2020.
While there are concerns about cost, most neighbors seem happy with the idea of sewer. For one thing it frees up the use of the property, allowing the construction of things like sheds, Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and pools, when setbacks from leach lines are no longer a concern.
Beverly Nystrom, whose rebuild is still in the foundation phase, is adding an ADU to her property in anticipation of sewer, so that her daughter’s family can move into the main house and help care for Nystrom, who will take up residence in the ADU.
“I never questioned the decision to connect with sewer because before the fire we had looked into putting a granny unit on the back for my husband and I and it was not a possibility. My husband and I, before his death in 2013, had asked our daughter if they would move in and care for us as we age and they consented, (but we couldn’t do it). Now my husband is gone and now I want to live our dream together,” said Nystrom.
“I’m actually at a harder place right now than when I lost my home,” she continued. “I was diagnosed with cancer four days before the fire, I underwent radical surgery in November, had a long recover in November and December and now with hearing from State Farm that I have to move (because of rental payments from the insurance companies expiring at the two-year mark this October), it’s like I’m kind of grieving again. It comes back to me needing my ADU and needing my family with me and I wouldn’t be able to do that without the sewer.”
There’s also a peace of mind that comes from not having to maintain or worry about the condition of 50-year-old septic systems.
“Knowing our septic systems were aging was stressful. It was stressful all the time,” Sheri Jacob said. “When we had all that rain, the water table got so high that all of our tanks were filling up with rainwater. You can’t go to the bathroom, you can’t wash the dishes, you’ve got to pay $400 to have someone come and then it fills up again. Always there’s that little piece of fear. Why isn’t the toilet flushing right? We went on vacation and oh the shower backed up, what happened? I’m looking forward to not having to worry about that stuff.”
But, the cost is still a concern, and Gena Jacob is hopeful that with some community support, such as the neighborhood has enjoyed with projects such as the re-greening to replace burned trees and the flashy perimeter fence now lining Mark West Springs Road, the project might still be manageable.
“I hope that somebody in our builder community will come across this or someone will send them this information and they’ll realize what an impact they can have for our neighborhood if they squeeze the numbers as best as possible,” she said. “Everybody has to make money, but I think there’s more of a story here than just that. We’ve had some pretty amazing things happen in our neighborhood ... and I’m hoping we can bring some attention and awareness.
“I’ve looked to see if there is someway FEMA can fund this but it doesn’t quite fit the mold. We’re taking the burden of the costs, but I don’t want to disregard what (the county) has done, they’ve been very open minded, very innovative with this finance package but the thing is its not going to work for everybody ... because the way it has to be set up through the property taxes,” Gena Jacob continued. “That’s going to be a difficult situation for some people but if they were willing to share some of the burden with us, it would be a huge homerun for all of us. However it reaches somebody, I hope it sets in somebody’s heart.”