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Some homeowners cling to their septic tanks

San Fernando Valley residents oppose a city proposal that might force them to connect to sewer lines or replace their systems. It could cost homeowners in high-risk areas tens of thousands of dollars.

May 31, 2010|By Ann M. Simmons, Los Angeles Times

Thousands of Los Angeles homeowners with septic tanks could be forced to connect to the city's sewer line or repair or replace their systems under a newly proposed ordinance.

Some San Fernando Valley residents think the idea stinks.

The proposal by the Department of Public Works would require that owners of the city's 11,643 septic tanks buy annual permits, replace malfunctioning tanks or connect to the sewers.

The cost of complying with the ordinance could run into the thousands of dollars, depending on where the septic system is located. Costs will be greater for those in high-risk areas — 900 feet from an active water well or 600 feet from water sources with high bacteria levels, sanitation officials said. There are 104 septic tanks that fit this criteria citywide, according to statistics provided last month by the Sanitation Bureau. But a fact sheet distributed to residents in April reported the number of septic tanks in high-risk areas to be 2,307.

Bureau officials estimate that operating permits would range from a "nominal" fee to almost $300 a year; pumping and inspection services would range from $380 to $3,800 a year for septic systems in high-risk areas; and replacing a septic tank or connecting to a central sewer line could run around $15,000.

But some residents said they had gotten independent quotes upward of $30,000 for pumping and inspection services and new tanks.

"There's no way I could afford it," said Barbara Johnson, a Tujunga resident who has two properties with 85-year-old septic tanks. "I'm totally content with my septic tanks."

Adel H. Hagekhalil, assistant director of the bureau, said the proposed ordinance had not been finalized. He insisted that the cost to most homeowners would be "nominal" because most don't have septic tanks in high-risk areas.

The proposed ordinance is a response to a decade-old state law requiring local water boards to place specific construction requirements on septic tanks.

According to data from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, between 10% and 20% of septic systems fail annually.

"If all properties were connected to the city's sewer system, which is not currently proposed, Los Angeles would not endure the environmental impacts of those failures," Hagekhalil said in an e-mail to The Times.

Several Southern California communities are grappling with the septic tank issue.

In Malibu, for example, city officials are fighting a decision by local water quality regulators to prohibit any new septic systems in portions of the coastal city and to require residents with septic tanks in those areas to pay to hook up to a new central sewer system. The order, which awaits approval by the State Water Resources Control Board, would affect about 550 residences and businesses.

In the Old Topanga area, which was annexed to Calabasas in 1991, homeowners are taking their hostility out on the city. Angered by a new city ordinance that requires tough and expensive inspections of their septic tanks, and the construction of a 6,200-square-foot sewer system, they have started the process of trying to return to unincorporated Los Angeles County.

Los Angeles' proposed ordinance also drew opposition from Sunland- Tujunga, home to more than 2,300 septic systems, the highest concentration in the city, according to bureau statistics.

Public outreach meetings hosted by the bureau in the San Fernando Valley over the past month have been "wall-to-wall," said Nancy Woodruff, chair of the Foothills Trails District Neighborhood Council's Land Use Committee.

"There's no need for permits," said Woodruff, who has three houses in La Tuna Canyon, all with 1920s septic tanks that she insists work fine. "People have been saying the city is just looking for money, and I agree."

However, some Valley residents said they would be happy if all of their neighbors got hooked up to the central sewer line.

Robin Meares, a longtime Tujunga resident, said that for years she had to endure the stench from a neighbor's malfunctioning septic tank as it was pumped every three months.

"The whole block stunk," recalled Meares, who five years ago paid $9,000 to connect one of her properties to the sewer line. "I'm a fan of modern plumbing."

ann.simmons.latimes.com

Times staff writer Martha Groves contributed to this report.

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