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December 2,  2009

Homeowners will be required to
disconnect illegal sewer links

All 24,000 houses in Brandywine Hundred would be inspected and homeowners would be required to eliminate illegal connections to the sanitary sewer network under a tentative plan presented to a County Council committee.

The plan calls for county government to share the cost of the disconnects, which in most cases could range up to $4,000, with homeowners. Those who fail to make them or refuse to admit inspectors to monitor what is done would be fined. Continued existence of offending connections could ultimately block sale of such properties.

Illegal connections include sump pumps, punctured floor drains, so-called French drains and roof drains.

Assistant county engineer David Hofer told the committee that he was presenting the plan to get lawmakers' reactions and indicated that the Department of Special Services is open to modifications before bringing forth enabling legislation. He said, however, that the county is under an environmental-compliance order to have a plan in place and begin to implement it by the end of June, 2010.

He declined after the meeting to comment on a timetable for moving ahead with draft legislation. "We have seven months to fine-tune [the plan]," he said.

Council members offered several comments, but the tone of conversation at the meeting seemed to indicate general agreement-in-principle. All 13 members of Council are members of its standing committees.

The most significant questions raised had to do with what will happen to the diverted water -- referred to in the trade as clearwater.

"In certain communities and in certain neighborhoods we're going to have a serious drainage problem," John Cartier said. "Won't we start flooding other people out?" Timothy Sheldon asked.

In Brandywine Hundred alone, illegal connections increase the daily sewage flow by 25 million to 50 million gallons during rainstorms, Hofer said. The average daily flow from the entire county when there is no rain is 53 million gallons. The added flow is more than the Wilmington sewage treatment plant can handle with the result that untreated sewage is dumped into the Delaware River. The state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control has ordered that to be remedied.

Expanding the system to accommodate peak flow would cost $189 million, he said. By contrast, the cost-sharing plan as now envisioned would cost $5 million. Failure to comply with the state order would invite further action by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, including massive fines, he warned.

"Doing nothing is not an option," Michael Svaby, general manager of the Department of Special Services, said. The department is the county's public works agency.

Hofer said at the meeting on Dec. 1 that cracking down on illegal connections is necessary because they contribute about a third of the peak flow. The department is focusing initial efforts on Brandywine Hundred because that area has by far the largest concentration of the connections with about one in every seven houses having them. Virtually none of the large commercial properties and very few of the smaller ones have such connections, he said.

He acknowledged that many homeowners -- probably a majority of them -- are unaware of their illegality. However, he maintained that the prohibition against such connections has been in county codes dating back at least as far as 1958. Despite that, builders in the past  routinely installed them and real estate agents seldom, if ever, referred to their existence.

And some homeowners do not even realize they have such connections, he added.

"This isn't a surprise. People have known for a long time they were going to have to fix this," Councilman George Smiley said.

The problem of mingling clearwater with sewage is fairly common around the nation. Other jurisdictions, Hofer said, deal with it in a variety of ways ranging from making required disconnects totally at taxpayer's expense to putting the entire onus on homeowners. New Castle County, he said, has chosen to "take the middle road" in deciding how to finance the program.

The tentative plan he presented called for paying what he referred to as an "up-front incentive" of $500 for one sump pump disconnected and $1,000 for two and $1,500 per punctured floor drain disconnected. Maximum payment per house would be $2,500. Those amounts apparently are irrespective of the actual cost of the disconnects.

Cost of all but the most difficult sump pump disconnects by a commercial plumber would range up to $2,000. Floor drain disconnects would cost twice as much. It is estimated that about 5% of disconnects would be in the most difficult category and cost more. Where remedial would obviously be cost-prohibitive, an exception to the requirement to disconnect could be granted and 'grandfathered' to the property, he said.

Recognizing that the expense which homeowners would incur will be the most objectionable feature of the plan when word of it gets around, Council president Paul Clark said he would advocate using county government's ability to float a tax-free bond issue at an interest rate considerably below what a homeowner could obtain as a means of financing the homeowner's share of the cost. What in effect would be a loan to the homeowner would be repaid over several years as an additional charge on the annual sewer fee. Smiley said such an arrangement should also require homeowners to bear a proportionate share of the cost of servicing the bonded debt.

Hofer said some homeowners could choose to do the work themselves. "They could go down to [a store], buy more tools and have fun," he quipped. Regardless of who does the work, however, it would have to measure up to set standards, he added.

The department, he said, intends to provide training for licensed commercial plumbers and other "qualified contractors who may wish to do this work" and will prepare for  general distribution a 'clearwater elimination handbook' which "shows what needs to be done and provides typical designs." In the end, however, "it will be entirely up to the homeowners" how and by whom the disconnects are accomplished.

The plan provides for inspectors to visit every house, business and institution in Brandywine Hundred between next July and June 30, 2014, to determine if they have illegal connections. Refusal to disconnect would result in an initial $500 fine, which would escalate with subsequent refusals. Homeowners, however, would have an option to continue the connections, but that would result in a charge equivalent to three times the average sewer fee, countywide, on top of their actual sewer fee.

Failure to admit the inspector to the house would also result in a fine although the draft outline of the tentative plan does not specify what that would be.

Inspectors would not be hired as county employees but supplied by an outside consulting contractor. Hofer said a pilot program conducted to provide data for drafting the tentative plan was conducted by a consulting firm, which he did not identify. Its work was found to be entirely satisfactory, he said.

Wherever in the county illegal connections are discovered through code-enforcement and other activities, the offending homeowners would be required to disconnect them under the same terms.

Also, the plan calls for a mandatory inspection and disconnects before a property would be cleared to change ownership. That would be the same as termite inspections now required for real estate transactions.

Jea Street suggested that, with some homeowners, instead of providing an alternative discharge for clearwater, "as soon as [the inspector] leaves, they're going to put it back the way it was."

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