Regarding the controversial Monte Rio sewer project, there will be a community meeting to discuss the project on Tuesday, December 11 at 5:30 p.m. at the Monte Rio School Gymnasium. The Board of Supervisors will consider the matter at its January 8, 2008 meeting. Both will be listed in the Action Calendar.
County pulls plug on Monte Rio sewer
by Frank Robertson – Sonoma West Staff Writer
MONTE RIO – Reactions were sharply divided this week over news that the long-awaited and bitterly-contested Monte Rio sewage project looks about to die an official death.
“Awww, isn’t that a shame,” Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman said sarcastically when advised of the news.
Baxman is one of many unabashed opponents of the multi-million dollar sewer project whose cost has more than doubled since it was first proposed ten years ago.
County Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD) officials this week recommended pulling the plug after new cost projections put the cost at more than $20 million.
“We’re recommending that the Board of Supervisors cancel the project,” said Permit and Resource Management Director Pete Parkinson.
Projected costs were $11.2 million when voters in 2003 approved forming an assessment district and a $3 million bond. The price is now “more than $20 million,” said Parkinson, “which exceeds available funding by at least $2.6 million. That figure includes not only construction but planning and engineering.”
The Monte Rio project “has simply become too expensive,” said Parkinson.
“This is a major disappointment for the Monte Rio community,” said 5th District Supervisor Mike Reilly, in a prepared statement released by PRMD. “The combination of rapidly escalating construction costs combined with reductions in federal and state grant funds is making it nearly impossible to upgrade sanitation systems in small rural communities.”
Financial problems facing the Monte Rio project “are playing out increasingly across the country,” said the PRMD announcement.
Building a new sewer system from the ground up “is a major capital expense,” said Parkinson. “With only a small number of properties to share the cost of building and maintaining a sewer system, these kinds of systems are becoming less economically viable.”
Even with nearly $12 million in state and federal grant commitments, Monte Rio residents would have paid nearly $1,200 a year for sewer service, the second highest rate in the County and “a significant burden for many lower income residents,” said PRMD. “Residents and owners within the proposed Monte Rio District have twice voted to assess themselves and pay annual charges for this sanitation system,” said Reilly.
“We have turned over every rock to secure grants for the project and still find that cost estimates substantially exceed available funds.”
Seeking even higher sewer rates would not be sustainable for the community, said Reilly, noting that some grant commitments would expire even if the County looked for additional funds.
The original impetus for building a sewer system in Monte Rio was to improve water quality in the lower Russian River, which is considered “impaired” under the federal Clean Water Act, said the PRMD announcement. “Much of this impairment is thought to result from older septic systems built near the River many years ago.”
“Not only are we unable to move forward with this needed wastewater treatment project,” said Parkinson, “but the small lot sizes in Monte Rio and proximity to the river make it almost impossible for residents to install a new septic system that meets today’s standards. This makes it very difficult for property owners to upgrade their properties, let alone consider any new development.”
A community meeting to discuss the project will be held on Tuesday, Dec. 11 at 5:30 p.m. at the Monte Rio School Gymnasium. The Board of Supervisors will consider the matter at its Jan. 8, 2008 meeting. “It’s a sad day,” said Darcy Major, administrative aide Reilly.
Reilly was away on vacation this week until after Thanksgiving and could not be reached for further comment.
After 10 years and millions of dollars spent on design, engineering and environmental documentation, “That’s hilarious,” said a Guerneville resident who was a critic of the project. “I’ll bet Mike Reilly’s fit to be tied.”
The Monte Rio sewer system’s demise marks a particularly sour note for Reilly who had shepherded the project through an arduous planning and financing process that included a local bond election and winning grants and loans from multiple state and federal entities.
“I think Mike did an exemplary job of collecting the money” to build the project, said Monte Rio resident Kristin Thurman.
“But I’m not surprised” at the decision to halt the project now, said Thurman. “What we had coming was going to be way too big,” said Thurman. “Now somebody’s got to pick up the ball” and find an affordable solution.
Advocates saw the Monte Rio sewer project as the centerpiece for reviving downtown Monte Rio’s historic commercial zone which has lost buildings to fire and flood over the years because the parcels are too small to rebuild with septic systems.
“We do need a sewer system,” said Steve Baxman, but not the proposed project that would have constructed a treatment plant on Sheridan Ranch near the Russian River west of town.
County lawyers had been in negotiation with Sheridan’s owners over the purchase price of the property and were prepared to use eminent domain to acquire it.
“I’m not surprised either,” said Gaylord Schaap, a Monte Rio property owner upon hearing news of the sewer project’s demise.
“I know it’s gotten very expensive in terms of cost per equivalent single-family dwelling,” said Schaap.
Residents had been looking at paying a projected $1,200 or more per year on their property tax bills for debt service and operations.
“It kind of caved in under its own weight,” said Schaap. “Twelve hundred dollars isn’t exorbitant by other district standards but it is by River standards,” said Schaap.
“It would have been more of a burden here than it would be in Santa Rosa,” where sewer rates just went up, said Schaap, a director of the Sweetwater Springs Water District that had been considered the eventual operator of the Monte Rio Sanitation District.
The Monte Rio project would have provided sewer service to approximately 320 single-family dwellings, 25 commercial properties and 40 multi-family dwellings.
Monte Rio is under a “waiver prohibition” which prevents new construction unless it complies with meet modern health and safety codes regarding septic systems.
With Monte Rio’s stand-alone plan dead, “It could mean we go back to Guerneville,” , said Schaap.
“Is the project really over or is it just going back to the Guerneville plant?” said Schaap. “That would make it a a lot less controversial.”