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Sewer opposition bubbles to surface

Vocal opposition to a plan to expand sewer service in Langley will probably require city government to come up with more convincing arguments for putting sewage pipes in the ground in four neighborhoods.

About 20 people concerned about the cost of sewer extensions in the Edgecliff, Saratoga, Third Street and First Street areas said "no" to the plan in a variety of ways this week. Objecting to sewer hookups in their neighborhoods largely for financial reasons at Wedenesday's city council meeting, the group levied its criticism around a special benefits study completed for the city recently.

The study, which was done by appraiser Jim Lema, estimates the amount of value that will be added to every single-family residential property once sewers are installed in the targeted neighborhoods. By converting from the septic systems they use now to centralized sewer service, Lema said 159 Langley property owners stand to gain $13,000 of property value on average.

That dollar figure also represents the maximum amount the city could levy against individual property owners to finance sewer construction. It was an amount that drew immediate fire at Wednesday's meeting.

Though Councilmember Neil Colburn said the cost of putting in sewers will never be lower, Langley resident Stacy McGill said the price is still too high.

"Well, maybe this cost is exorbitant to me," she said.

After several other people spoke out about cost, city attorney Eric Lucas clarified the result of the benefits study. While $13,000 is the maximum, he said the city expects the actual construction costs to be significantly lower. He could not say how much lower, because city engineer Ryan Goodman has yet to complete an estimate.

Lucas also said sewer extensions are not a foregone conclusion. The city will have to create a utility local improvement district to finance the work. If property owners representing 60 percent of the total value of properties within the extension areas protest the project, it will be shelved. Lucas said individual neighborhoods can also opt out of the project.

Other complaints centered on the influence of property owners with a number of lots who stand to profit from residential development if they receive sewer service. Several members of the public commented that the sewer issue could come down to a battle between the wealthy and the poor. Jeannie Parrot, a Furman Avenue area resident who identified herself as a member of the working poor, said increased development and the cost of a sewer hookup will force her out of her home.

"You wouldn't want to live on Furman and Decker 10 years after sewers go in," she said.

One factor that threatens to supersede any arguments against sewers is the possibility of serial or "cascade" failures of septic systems. Colburn, who is an Edgecliff resident, said he and two neighbors have experienced septic failures during the past year. If enough systems go, he said, the Island County Health Department could mandate sewer installations. That option will be more expensive than organizing a ULID now, Colburn said.

Colburn expressed unflagging support for installing sewers. He said planning for more sewer service is something he believes will benefit Langley residents.

"We didn't hide in a smokey little room upstairs trying to figure out ways to torture people on Edgecliff," he said. "We are going to extend sewers."

Before that happens, the city must get affected residents on its side and secure state loan money, which will allow those with new sewers to pay off their connections over 20 years at an interest rate of about 1 percent. Project costs would include storm drainage and paving work for areas that need it.

If the four neighborhoods do get sewers, residents will not only pay their share of the construction costs, but connection fees that could total $3,500 on average.

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