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River Watch Requires Enforcement of City Ordinance

By KATIE MINTZ Ukiah Daily Journal

Beginning Jan. 17, the city of Ukiah will start to enforce part of an ordinance that’s been on the books since 2004, according to City Attorney David Rapport.

The Sewer Lateral Inspection Ordinance, required by a consent decree in the settling of a lawsuit filed against the city by Northern California River Watch, mandates that when any property with a sewer hook-up is sold, the pipes — called the sewer lateral — that connect the building to the city’s sewer main be inspected for leakage at the point of sale.

City Manager Candace Horsley said the ordinance was drafted following the filing of the suit that alleged raw sewage was being discharged from the city’s collection system and infiltrating the Russian River. However, because the original ordinance did not have much public input, it was never effectively implemented by former Director of Public Utilities Bernie Ziemianek.

Now, with the deadline for implementation set at Jan. 17, Rapport said the city needs to comply with the consent decree.

But, while the consent decree also specifies that repair or replacement of sewer laterals should proceed if a need is indicated by an inspection, Rapport said it is not specific as to when the repairs have to be made.

“We’re going to take some steps to inform the real estate community that the city is going to expect at least the inspection to be conducted for escrows that open on real estate transactions after Jan. 17,” Rapport said.

He noted that the city is working to amend its ordinance in a way that makes repairs and replacements to the sewer laterals, which are the sole responsibility of the property owner (including the portion that lies beyond the owner’s property line in the public right-of-way), more easily implemented and equitable to property owners.

On Wednesday, the Ukiah City Council heard a presentation from Mary Grace Pawson of consulting engineer firm Winzler & Kelly. Pawson, hired by the city to assist in revising and implementing the Sewer Lateral Ordinance, has met several times with members of the real estate community, plumbing contractors, two city councilmembers and other interested parties to develop a list of issues and possible alternatives to be taken into account in the ordinance’s revision.

The City Council, led by Councilman Doug Crane, who has been highly involved with the working group, gave direction to Pawson based on the 10 issues presented.

Those issues included that a point-of-sale requirement for inspection would not be as effective as one based geographically in reducing infiltration and inflow, that repairs to the portion of the laterals in the public right-of-way would be expensive and difficult to obtain permits for, that point-of-sale requirements place new liability on Realtors, that requirement for repair prior to final sale could slow transactions and that re-inspections could be unnecessarily frequent if the property quickly changes hands.

According to Kathy Hayes of the North Bay Association of Realtors, in some areas of the city, sewer laterals can be buried as deep as 20 feet and cost from $12,000 to $15,000 to repair.

“We continue to be concerned about the process and concerned about the impact to homeowners and to the real estate industry in Ukiah,” Hayes said, addressing the council during public comment.

Many took issue with Ukiah’s policy that the entire lateral belongs to property owner even beyond the line.

“I can understand going to the property line,” Sharron Hatfield of Beverly Sanders Realty Co. said, “but let’s say there is a problem but it’s not on the building side, it’s in the street — maybe there’s a tree that belongs to the public…that’s gotten into the lateral. I don’t think it’s fair to ask the property owners to pay for that.”

Pawson is expected to return to the council next year with more information on the issue of ownership and with a refined ordinance for possible approval.