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Community Voices: Gabbard sets the record straight on private sewer laterals

Brandi Gabbard

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On September 26, St. Petersburg City Council met during a Committee of the Whole meeting to discuss a proposed ordinance for the repair and replacement of the sewer lines that run on private property. There has been a lot of confusion since this meeting about what this actually means for residents. It is important to be clear on the facts and not fall into the spin that encourages us to place blame and pass judgement on the ways we are approaching the challenges with our aging sewer system.

The first thing that is important to know is that, in simplest terms, there are two parts to a modern sewer system. There is the private part that is a property owners’ responsibility and a public part that is the government’s responsibility. While the parts of the public system are vast, complex and expensive to maintain and upgrade, the private system is pretty straightforward. Unfortunately, most of it is underground and therein lies the problem.

Because we cannot see these sewer lines that run through our properties and connect to the main city lines, we are often not aware there is an issue with them until it is beyond repair and the only answer is replacement. These lines can be compromised by a variety of things, and you will never know it until there is a backup in your home or a smelly, unexplained puddle in your yard.  You may have heard that all lines regardless of where they are located are the city’s responsibility. To put it bluntly, that is just not true. Just like a roof, plumbing leak, or any other home repair, sewer lines are and have always been an owner’s responsibility up to the point where it connects to the public lines. The city takes it from there.

It is no secret that in 2015 and 2016 there were a lot of issues with our overall system producing catastrophic results, brought on mostly by the lack of maintenance across all parts of the system citywide. As a result, the city was required to enter into a Consent Order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and complete over $300M worth of upgrades that would bring the entire system up to current standards. One of the goals of this order was to reduce the overall inflow and infiltration of stormwater seeping into the system through compromised pipes that lay underground. This I/I, as they call it, has been credited with a large portion of the issues we experienced, and it is suspected that 40-60+% is coming from compromised private lines. Because of this realization the order states that “no later than June 30, 2020 the city shall pass an ordinance regarding the replacement of private laterals (sewer lines) that contribute to I/I to the city’s collection system.” This requirement left the city no choice but to deal with the private system through an ordinance that all property owners will have to adhere to. So, on September 26 we began the process of doing just that!

Over the last several years we have discussed scenarios of what this ordinance might look like, how we could possibly mandate such a thing, who would pay for it, who would do the inspections, and so on. Most of these conversations have centered around a concern that we are mindful of the impact to residents and do no harm or stigmatize properties in our attempt to comply with the order.

We knew the day would come that we would have to make a decision on how to proceed. For months we have been doing a study on how great the problem really is, and are getting close to understanding the scope of the issue. However, knowing that a deadline was looming on this ordinance requirement, we moved forward with a plan that would simply require any property owner who is made aware of a compromise in their private line “through the observance of open and obvious conditions” to have it fixed by a licensed plumber within 180 days.

As someone who has had to have this done at their own residence, I can assure you that when the issue presents itself you will have no choice but to replace the line for the health and safety of those living in or visiting the property. I can also assure you, I know personally how expensive this work is.

My colleagues and I are very concerned about the financial impact to our residents. Especially those who do not have the means to comply. I assure you that we will do everything we can within the confines of our current budget and regulatory restrictions to aid those who are the most impacted financially by this requirement. Please know that the personal costs involved are not lost on us, nor the burden this will place on many homeowners.

This ordinance will come before Council for first hearing November 7 with the public hearing taking place December 5. If you have concerns or questions, please reach out. We want to hear from you about how you feel, how you will be impacted or any ideas of how we can assist those who may need it. We are all in this together as we continue to improve our sewer system and protect our environment for generations to come.

Email all of City Council at council@stpete.org.

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