Commissioners, lot owners, sanitation district debate septic issue
November 22, 2009
Steamboat Springs — The Routt County Board of Commissioners offered a ray of hope last week to 1,155 lot owners in some of the original subdivisions at Stagecoach that do not have water and sewer service.
The commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to reject a proposal from the Morrison Creek Metropolitan Water and Sanitation District to cap the number of sealed sewage vaults that can be installed on the lots.
Citing the negative impacts the vaults have on its aging wastewater treatment plant, the district board asked the commissioners to approve an amendment to their existing agreement that would formally limit the total number of vaults that could be installed in 12 subdivisions, most dating to the creation of Stagecoach in the early 1970s.
The vaults, used in lieu of traditional sewage lines or septic systems, must be pumped so waste can be trucked to the nearby treatment plant. District officials say the sudden influx of waste is too much for the microorganisms that digest the sewage.
However, the commissioners said the district hasn't convinced them of the need for the cap at this time. The cap would allow only 30 additional vaults beyond the 89 already permitted, leaving 1,155 lots owners with no easy or economical solution.
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"The district needs to continue to look at ways to work with owners who want to get water and sewer to their property," Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said. "They may have to find a way to do it incrementally."
The Steamboat Springs Board of Realtors notified the County Commissioners in late August that it was opposed to the Sanitation District's plan to cut off vault permits. The Board of Realtors had retained attorneys to advise it on the legal issues surrounding the matter.
"This action would limit the ability of property owners to use property as they see fit," said Pam Lindahl, a director of the Board of Realtors and a Stagecoach resident. "It's unfathomable for a water and sewer district not to provide water and sewer services. The istrict must be held accountable to the Special Districts Act."
Problems from another era
The problems at Stagecoach can be traced to the fact, Stahoviak said, that in another era, developers could gain approval for selling lots before installing critical infrastructure like roads and sewer. The result at Stagecoach has been that people have owned lots for many years but don't have a way to tie into traditional municipal sewer lines. Because of the limited ability of local soils to percolate moisture, county regulations prohibit septic systems on lots smaller than 5 acres. And at Stagecoach, there are many lots not served by the subdivision roads needed to service sealed sewage vaults.
The net effect is that after 35 years, many of the lots still aren't eligible for building permits.
Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush said some of the rush for property at Stagecoach in the early '70s could be attributed to people speculating that their
property values would increase if Colorado hosted the 1976 Winter Olympics. Colorado voters rejected the Olympics and that never happened.
"We've been very captive by a few very bad decisions made in the early 1970s," Mitsch Bush said. "Things came together to create what is plaguing us now."
The agreement establishes terms and conditions under which owners of certain lots with the boundary of the district can obtain building permits for lots served by sewage vaults that require trucks to haul waste to the treatment plant.
The sudden influx of waste delivered by the trucks is more than the plant can handle efficiently, district officials say. Their proposal would not have affected lot owners in recently created subdivisions like Coyote Run and the Neighborhoods at Young's Peak, for example, because the developers of those projects were required by the county to install traditional sewer lines before they were approved.
Instead, the affected lots were created in the early 1970s by the original developer, Woodmoor Corp., which went into bankruptcy in 1974, leaving the new water and sanitation district underfunded. The district ultimately restructured its debt under Chapter 9 bankruptcy, emerging from bankruptcy in 2000.
However, with the large majority of Stagecoach lots unbuilt, the district has limited revenue and is loathe to bond for capital projects without sufficient revenues to back them.
Role of developers
Installation of infrastructure is the proper role of developers, who can recoup their investment from the sale of lots, Morrison Creek Metropolitan Water and Sanitation District board member Ken Burgess said.
"We can't go right back into bankruptcy," he said. "The mandate for Morrison Creek does not include protecting, enhancing or diminishing property values. The district receives no income from the sale of lots, but only from tap fees and service fees (resulting from the construction of homes). It makes no sense for us to take on (sewer line installation) when there is no return for us."
More than 50 people, most of them Stagecoach lot owners in subdivisions comprising the Stagecoach Property Owners Association, attended Tuesday's public hearing. Many stood up to tell the commissioners that limiting the number of sewage vaults would unfairly diminish their property values and make it nearly impossible for many of them to ever build on their lots.
Burgess told the property owners the district is not indifferent to the difficult situation the lot owners face, but said the district's mandate does not include protecting property values. The market will determine property values, he said.
"This is a service issue, and it's one that's not easy to get your arms around," Burgess said. "We realize the investments made and the expectations and dreams people have out there. We care about it. We're neighbors."
Burgess told his audience that of 542 vaults authorized under the original agreement with the county, there are agreements for 89. Of those, 80 have been installed. The board arbitrarily chose to add the number 30 to the existing installed vaults, Burgess said, and cap all future vaults at that number.
Burgess said the district receives 1 million gallons of sewage annually that is trucked to the treatment plant by a private contractor, and that is with just 6 percent of the permitted 542 vaults in place.
District Manager Steve Colby explained that the treatment plant is a living system of microorganisms that digest the sewage. The arrival of large trucks full of sewage introduces waste chemicals in volumes that overwhelm the microorganisms and the plant's capacity.
Trucked sewage loads
"In 10 minutes, we receive what would normally take two weeks" to enter the treatment plant," Colby said. "If you're getting bombed with this stuff, it represents shock loads to the biological system."
One possibility to buy time for the treatment plant, Colby said, would be to build a reserve storage tank that would gradually release trucked sewage loads into the treatment plant.
But even under the old agreement, Burgess said, there was the certainty that many current lot owners would face difficult choices in order to preserve some value in their lots. There are 1,155 lots spread among a dozen subdivision that could not be covered with vaults under the existing agreements.
Major subdivisions with shortages include Horseback, 184; Morningside, 149; Skyhitch IV, 118; South Shore, 144; and South Station I, 157.
Others include Blackhorse I, High Cross, Overland, Skyhitch I, II and II and South Station II.
The Morrison Creek board thinks the two best options for resolving the issues with un-served lots in Stagecoach include consolidation of existing lots to create new lots of at least 5 acres, which would permit installation of a septic system. The second would be for subdivisions to form Local Improvement Districts so they could tax themselves for extension of sewer lines. That's a step that could incur expenses of tens of thousands of dollars for each lot.
Routt County Board of Commissioners Chairman Doug Monger said as long as the district collects property taxes from all of the lot owners, it has an obligation to look for solutions to the challenges of extending wastewater treatment to the subdivisions in Stagecoach.
"I'd be a little upset, too, if I was paying property taxes to cover the operational costs (of water and sewer) for other people, and not getting service myself," Monger said. "I've always been a proponent of lot consolidation out there."