If everything went as planned in Los Osos, all 5,000 or so properties mandated to connect to the new Los Osos Wastewater Plant would have done so as of a March 18 deadline.
But instead, as the one-year grace period to hook up expires, up to 700—or about 14 percent of the community—still aren’t connected, according to SLO County. Meanwhile, a State Water Resources Control Board order dating back to the 1980s continues to pressure the same residences to ditch their septic tanks, which have polluted the underlying groundwater for decades.
County officials and community members told New Times they aren’t sure about the reasons for the delays. Deputy Director of SLO County Public Works Mark Hutchinson said the county would be sending letters to property owners to urge them to connect. He indicated a questionnaire could be added to it to get a better sense of the reasons why some people aren’t completing the work.
“We want to really get a better sense of why folks aren’t connecting,” Hutchinson said. “Is it the costs? Are they absentee owners? It’s a difficult conversation to have.”
Connecting to the sewer involves choosing and hiring a contractor to build a lateral pipe and decommission the septic tank. The contractor must survey the property first and obtain a permit from the county.
All in all, the laterals are costing homeowners between $2,000 and $10,000, depending on the layout of the property. For instance, if a house sits in a depression, the lateral may have go uphill to the mainline, which would require a pricey sewage pump.
No matter the reason, if property owners hold off for too much longer, the county could start levying fines, or the Regional Water Quality Control Board could step in.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” said Bruce Gibson, SLO County’s 2nd District Supervisor, who represents Los Osos.
Hooking up ain’t easy
Of the roughly 700 properties not yet connected, the county knows that 98 are low-income homeowners rightfully awaiting financial assistance.
SLO County has developed a subsidy program for the lateral connections by leveraging Housing and Urban Development (HUD) community block grants. The program will benefit the households that formally submitted applications and proved that they earn less than 80 percent of Los Osos’ median income (equaling $48,900 for a household of two).
For nearly a year, the program was held up because HUD initially determined that the construction work called for prevailing wages (a higher set of wages required for public projects). That would’ve dramatically increased the cost of the work, but the county recently convinced HUD to change that determination, since a lateral sewer pipe benefits one private property owner.
On April 11, the county Board of Supervisors sent $174,714 more in HUD grant funds to the lateral assistance fund, upping the total money available to about $600,000—or about 100 hook-ups if each one cost $6,000. Hutchinson said he hopes the funds will be able to cover all 98 low-income property owners. He said the program will start moving forward right away.
Aside from those 98 homeowners, officials are perplexed at why their data indicate that roughly 600 others aren’t connected. They aren’t ruling out some accounting errors, but the number is too high to be just that. Hutchinson said he believes some are simply “overwhelmed” by the costs.
In total, 203 property owners applied for financial help with the lateral connection, according to People’s Self-Help Housing, the organization that conducted the income certification. Of those, 59 applicants earned below the 50 percent median income level ($38,550 for a household of two) and were eligible for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant/loan program, 98 were suited for the county program, and 46 were deemed ineligible for assistance.
Julie Olson is one Los Osos homeowner who was declared ineligible for subsidies, but not because she didn’t need them. Olson doesn’t live in Los Osos—or SLO County—since she suffers from a physical disability and can’t afford to live in the area. As an absentee landowner who rents out the house, Olson said she was disqualified for the financial assistance programs. She decided to take out a loan to pay for the lateral work.
“I am unable to afford to live in my house—even if I wanted to move back home,” Olson told New Times. “It is frightening to live on credit, yet I can’t lose my house. It is the only investment I have that can keep me from starving if things get worse in life.”
Some community members told New Times long waits or problems with contractors held up the work, or properties had environmental conditions that presented issues.
The lateral construction costs aren’t the only sewer-related burdens facing Los Osos residents. A wastewater bill for a single-family house is projected at nearly $2,000 per year, for the sewer service and the $185 million plant construction costs.
Supervisor Gibson pointed out that property owners who decided not to hook up to the sewer will still be paying for it.
“If someone is just trying to ignore the inevitable, they are going to be paying for sewer service and the capital assessment anyway,” Gibson said.
Reach Staff Writer Peter Johnson at email@example.com.