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Sewer issue adds burden to displaced homeowners

As the rubble is cleared away from the destruction of the Almeda fire, more is being revealed than just bare ground. In some cases, homeowners are discovering they may be on the hook for improvements they didn’t know were needed.

In the case of the Oak Valley subdivision, a 55-and-over development in Talent, it turns out the project was constructed with a sewer system that doesn’t meet code requirements for single-family, stick-built homes. Before residents can rebuild, the system must be upgraded at a cost the regional Rogue Valley Sewer Services agency estimates at nearly $800,000.

It seems the subdivision was originally proposed — and approved by the city of Talent — as a mobile home park back in 1994. Mobile home parks are a single property owned and managed by a single owner with spaces rented to occupants, and are allowed to operate with less stringent requirements for sewer systems because the park owner is responsible for all maintenance.

At some point, the plans changed and stick-built homes were constructed instead. That should have required a public sewer system, with larger diameter lines, manhole covers at strategic spots and access for utility vehicles.

The state Department of Environmental Quality wrote a letter to the developers, Jensen and Associates, in 1995 notifying them that Rogue Valley Sewer Services, then known as Bear Creek Valley Sanitary Authority, did not accept the system as designed and laying out three options for fixing the problem.

For whatever reason, nothing was done.

Barring some failure of the system that required major repairs, the situation might never have come to light. But the Almeda fire changed all that by destroying the subdivision.

Now, displaced homeowners are facing bills of $12,085 per lot to upgrade the system.

We’re not prepared to place blame for this state of affairs. It might take a court case to determine who is ultimately responsible. I seems clear, however, that it shouldn’t be the homeowners.

It’s possible that RVSS pay for the work up front and create a reimbursement district to accept payments from homeowners. The agency board could accept payments over 20 years with interest, or defer payments until the properties are sold. It’s also possible that some insurance policies will cover the costs for individual owners.

Those options might make it less painful for some owners, but still leave them having to pay for someone else’s mistake. A public hearing next week at the sewer district should at least provide some clarity.

Everyone involved should do what they can to lessen the burden on people who lost their homes. State officials, including DEQ and the Legislature if need be, should take steps to prevent a situation like this from occurring in the future.