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Sewer service option will be available in rural areas

Property owners in developed rural areas of Jackson County soon will have the option of connecting to a regional sewer service instead of relying on septic tanks that could contaminate streams and groundwater.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners approved a proposal Wednesday that will enable 1,644 already developed lots in rural areas near sewer lines to tap into the Rogue Valley Sewer Services system.

"It's been a long time coming," Commissioner Jack Walker said, noting that the issue came to the board's attention when failing septic tanks sent contaminated water across the valley in 1997's New Year's Day flood.

A portion of state land-use law known as Planning Goal 11 prohibits sewer extensions outside of urban growth boundaries in an effort to control sprawl, but clay soils and a high water table in many parts of Jackson County make septic systems prone to failure, county officials noted.

Property owners who wanted to connect to a sewer line instead of relying on a septic tank faced a lengthy administrative process that could cost thousands of dollars to get an exemption from the state goal, Commissioner C.W. Smith said.

"One of my complaints right after I took office was why do people have to go through this process," he said.

County officials worked with local legislators, including Reps. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, and Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, to craft a bill that would have allowed select property owners to bypass the exemption process, Smith said. However, local authorities and the Department of Land Conservation and Development worked out a proposal that would amend the county's land-use plans and ordinances without changing state law.

County planners, consultants and representatives from 1,000 Friends of Oregon, a planning and conservation group, identified 10 areas in the county where problem soils, slopes or flood plains made septic problems likely and nearby sewer lines offered an alternative without expanding the existing sewer system, Smith said.

The identified areas are on the north, south and west edges of Medford, north of Ashland, east of White City, near Central Point, Jacksonville, Phoenix, Talent and in the Tolo area. Listed property owners in those areas will qualify to seek a simple administrative review if they want to connect to the sewer system

In public hearings in December, most people supported the idea, but some were concerned that rural homeowners could be forced to accept sewer service, Smith said. Others worried that the proposal could lead to urban expansion.

Smith noted that connecting to sewer service will be the property owner's choice and they will have to pay for the connection themselves. More than 90 percent of the eligible properties are already developed, county planners reported, so the change shouldn't increase urbanization.

It should help protect water quality, though, he said.

"I think this is a tremendous achievement for our community and our valley," Smith said.

Now that the proposal has been approved, ordinance changes will have a first reading May 19, a second reading June 2 and would go into effect 60 days after that.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 541-776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.