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Idyllwild Sewer Project Plan--It's Neighbor Against Neighbor

December 16, 1987|LOUIS SAHAGUN | Times Staff Writer

IDYLLWILD, Calif. — A plan to triple the size of a sewer system here has torn apart this once-peaceful community of 3,000 people in the San Jacinto Mountains, turning neighbor against neighbor.

The proposed $15.6-million project ostensibly would prevent faulty septic tanks from polluting the local water table. It would also spur development in an area that has not seen significant change in 20 years--and that has some residents in an uproar.

"The opponents are hoping for a moratorium on construction here," said Jim Palmer, a local real estate agent in favor of the project. "They are trying to slam the door on others who want to come."

Opponents agree that massive development is a fear. But they are also skeptical about the area's need for the system and worried that some here may not be able to afford assessments to pay for the sewers that could run as high as $5,000 per lot in some areas.

Idyllwild has had pollution problems from septic tanks in the past, and local water districts have sought a multimillion-dollar federal grant to expand the area's sewage plant and get more residents off subsurface waste-water treatment systems.

Current building and health codes, zoning regulations and a limited number of buildable parcels have all but precluded high-density development until now. But some developers hope--and some residents fear--that expansion of the sewer system would make it easier to win approval to build additional homes, apartments and condominium complexes.

"My alternative is to keep Idyllwild on the same reasonable growth pattern it has been on since I moved here in 1953," said Wallace Best, 60, a former professor at Harvard University and now a paid consultant to an anti-sewer project group called Citizens for Conservation of Southwest Riverside County.

"I would not like to see it duplicate Big Bear with its wall-to-wall people," Best said. "And I am absolutely convinced that there is no pollution problem that will be remedied by what they are proposing."

Best, among others, is actively seeking an alternative to the sewer project that would have less of an effect on the local environment. The project would expand the area's 17-year-old waste-water treatment plant and connect about 1,700 additional lots in Idyllwild and in the neighboring unincorporated communities of Pine Cove and Fern Valley, state water officials said. However, most of the area would remain on subsurface systems managed under "septic tank maintenance zones" formed by local water districts, these officials said.

The project could raise property values of certain parcels by 33% to 50%, and increase the area's annual population growth rate from the current 2% to 3% up to 5%, according to Ryder Ray, a local water official and leader of the fight to have the project built.

"Some people don't talk to me like they used to over this," Ray said. "But if this project doesn't go through, in five years there will be the biggest (pollution) mess here you ever saw."

Still, controversy could kill a $9.8-million federal Clean Water Act grant earmarked to build the project, said Joanne Schneider, an environmental specialist with the state Regional Water Quality Control Board.

"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is ready to make a final determination on the grant," Schneider said. "Significant controversy could derail it."

She said the ruling by the EPA is expected to be made by February.

Schneider warned, however, that failure to remedy the area's water problems now might result later in regulatory action, which could include cease-and-desist orders against problem discharges. "If this project is derailed, we will not go away," she said. "We cannot say that it is OK to pollute the water there."

Idyllwild and its neighboring communities, which are nestled in a narrow valley at the 6,000-foot level of the rugged, boulder-strewn San Jacinto Mountains about 110 miles east of Los Angeles, receive water from three local water districts that draw from wells, springs and streams, officials said.

In the late 1970s, a series of tests showed that a major source of water, Strawberry Creek, was polluted with fecal bacteria believed to have come from septic tanks, state water officials said.

Coalition Formed

The local water districts formed a coalition called the San Jacinto Mountain Area Water Study Agency to assess the threat of pollution and to seek federal funds to solve the problem, said Ray, grant manager of the study group.

In 1981, the agency received a $2.8-million federal grant to finance the design and part of the construction of improvements to the sewer system. But the resulting plan, which officials said would cost $3.2 million to build, foundered in the planning stages for years because of delays, amendments and a change in project engineers, officials said.

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