Time is running out for homeowners using septic systems when village sewer lines are available.
Members of Ruidoso's Capital Improvements Advisory Committee were directed Tuesday to firm up a plan to cover mandatory sewer line connections, including drafting new timeline rules, notification letters, a tracking process, enforcement steps and follow-up procedures.
Village councilors told Committee Chairman John Cornelius they were happy to turn over the tough job to his group.
"We would like to get the village back on track for hooking up to sewer," Cornelius said. If the village and residents fail to follow through on connections when lines are available, Cornelius warned that staff with the New Mexico Environment Department will step in and enforce a stricter state rule that requires connection within 30-days of when a line is installed.
Councilor Joseph Eby confirmed Cornelius' statement. "I know this looks like the village is big, bad mean (entity) coming after everybody," he said. But ED District 3 Director Jack King several years ago explained the state's position at a public meeting. He more recently told Eby if village doesn't act, that "very soon" the ED will act and will require those not in compliance to connect within 30 days, "not 31 days or 32 days or any extension beyond that." the councilor said. "It's much better for residents to deal with the village and work with us. We're flexible, but we still want to protect our water and environment."
Even without the state looking over their shoulders, village officials also are bound by a court settlement of a lawsuit over the quality of water in the Rio Ruidoso that requires the village provide sewer service and mandates connections by those on septic systems.
"We've met with some resistance in the past and (a) previous council gave a blanket two-year waiver on hooking up three years ago, so (the committee) would like us to get back on track," he said. "Probably, we need to do some general education through newspaper articles and the mayor talking about it on the radio. There are some good reasons. They are still polluting the river. There are very few lots in town that meet environmental permit regulations for conventional septic systems. They are too small and way too rocky. Aerobics are just expensive."
First group identified
Village Building Official Shawn Fort identified about 100 homeowners who have sewer available and are not hooked up, he said. "Those are the first ones," the committee would pursue, Cornelius said. As for other areas, "We can't do anything in a year, so we would have plenty of time to notify people in an area that sewer is coming, so that they have time to plan. We don't want to surprise people," he said.
The cost "is not going to make anybody happy, I know," Cornelius said. "But if they know about it, they can plan. When the sewer gets there, we will send a registered letter saying they have 30 days to sign up for the impact fee and hook-up fee part, and an additional 60 days to hook-up. Your ordinance says 30 days for it all, but some people have said we don't have enough plumbers and 30 days may not be long enough. We think 90 total is more than reasonable."
He said the committee will develop a set of guidelines for individual waivers and will work with homeowners to accommodate those who recently installed an expensive aerobic system, which runs about $10,000. Those systems are considered more effective in controlling pollution.
Community Devel_opment Director Bobbye Rose found some funding sources that may provide loans or grants for low-income and older homeowners who plead hardship, Cornelius said. The situation also may meet the criteria for some money she found in the Environment Department. "So we are trying to find some help for homeowners," he said.
The committee members want to avoid any future blanket extension waivers, he said.
As clusters of homes are hooked up and the impact fee fund grows, that money then could be used to install more sewer lines in areas such as Green Meadows, hooking up another 150 people and generating more impact fee dollars. Pinecliff might follow, he said, adding. "You could eventually get it done."
"I think it's great that you agreed to handle this," Mayor Ray Alborn told Cornelius.
"The main thing we think is to make the information available on the application for the impact fees, have realistic fees with everything on there so people know what it is going to cost. We don't want any surprises," Cornelius said.
"The Environmental Department has bent over backwards violating their regulations trying to wait on us to get everybody hooked up," the committee chairman said. Much of the problem with high phosphorous and nitrate levels in the Rio Ruidoso above the treatment plant is tied to the significant number of septic tanks still operating, he said. The mandatory hook up will aim at that problem and the new treatment plant has cleaned up the plant discharge further downstream into the river, he said.
The committee went as far as it could without the council agreeing with the direction, he said.
When property is sold, the state requires a septic inspection, Cornelius pointed out. The majority are not passing and many of those homeowners had to install aerobic tanks to sell their property. "We sort of did that to them, because there wasn't a sewer line available and they were forced to put in those systems," he said. "When you spend $10,000 or $12,000 on a tank, you may not want to spend $4,000 on a hookup." However, they were notified when they installed those aerobic systems that they would have to connect once sewer lines were installed, he said.
"But I still think we have some obligation, because we didn't supply (the service) earlier," he said, suggesting a five- to 10-year time period to allow the homeowners to amortized the cost of the aerobic system. The aerobics require a lot of maintenance and any failures could be reported to the village and require an immediate connection to sewer, he said. "I think we need a consistent plan that is fair to those people," Cornelius said. "So if we can come up with a plan and let them amortize those out, give them a few years or upon sale of the property, but I think it needs to be a set policy."
Councilor Lynn Crawford asked about enforcement for homeowners who refuse to comply. Cornelius said he's been conferring with Municipal Judge Beverly Rankin and he may need to ask for more teeth in the ordinance. Fort could pursue violators under issues of public health and welfare, but that would be a last resort, he said.
Councilor Jim Stoddard thanked Cornelius and his committee for tackling a problem that's "been in the closet a number of years," and he emphasized he wanted to be sensitive to those who paid for aerobic systems.
He questioned if 90 days was enough time. He also wanted Village Attorney Dan Bryant to review all documents and forms, "because we know there will be some court cases." He asked if public hearings or workshops should be conducted with affected homeowners specifically invited to ask questions.
Bryant replied that the time period could be massaged. "The first notice really came out when we gave the two-year extension three years ago," he said. "Today's conversation is another wake-up call because our citizens need to know we're not doing this because we're mean or ornery. We're doing it because it's good for our community and good for the water. The federal and state governments told us in 2003 to 'Go do this.' All of those facts are important for the public to know."
The capital improvement committee holds public meetings and keeps minutes, the attorney pointed out. He urged newspapers to invite citizens to attend for a thoughtful conversation.
"They will end up with a minimum of five to six months notice for the first group and we can be proactive between then with our public relations tools," Bryant said. "This will be more public than the Kardashians taking over Miami as we go forward in the process."
He acknowledged the probability of the village facing court challenges and said he will review all documents, and will ensure the program is fair and will withstand judicial scrutiny.
"We will make sure citizens have as much notice and opportunity to get their finances together, to get these things done as we can. There will be public hearings with the committee and if any ordinance amendments are required, public hearings before the council," he said. "This is not the last conversation and the seven (on the council) will have plenty of opportunity to receive input from constituents."
"The most important thing everyone needs to know, we have to get rolling in a serious, organized dedicated way on this project," Bryant said. "We have spent tens of millions of dollars creating the capacity (to treat the sewage) and it's time to make sure we're really cleaning up our environment and using that capacity."