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A handful of Islanders face fines for failed septic systems

Twenty-eight waterfront property owners — most of whom live in Seattle, Tacoma and California — are being fined $25 a day for failing to get their septic systems inspected or repaired after a five-year effort by King County officials to force them to do so.

The fines, which began July 1, are the latest step in the county’s effort to address failing septic systems, considered sources of pollution that are fouling beaches and closing geoduck beds to tribal and commercial shellfish harvesters. The county began its effort in 2007, identifying 263 homeowners in six different waterfront neighborhoods who needed to either prove to the county that their systems were in order or begin the process of figuring out if their system works.

Last week, the county sent out notices to 33 property owners who have failing systems or had not let the county know the status of their system, whittling the list to 28 after the county discovered some of the names on the list were in error.

Larry Fay, manager of community environmental health in the county’s health department, said he’s actually encouraged by the numbers; in February, 133 homeowners appeared to be in violation.

“There’s a lot of good news here,” he said.

According to a list of the properties obtained by The Beachcomber, those who remain out of of compliance include nine property owners who live on Vashon; the rest are Seattle, Tacoma, California, Gig Harbor, Burien or Eastern Washington residents.

At least one of the homes is assessed at $1 million and is owned by a Seattle physician. Some are vacation homes owned by extended families. Others are modest cabins on small lots backed by steep banks.

Some of those homeowners, reached last week, said they didn’t know they were about to begin accruing fines or thought a property manager or relative had submitted documents to the county. A few said they had gotten their system inspected and didn’t belong on the list — a fact the county confirmed after a call about the property from The Beachcomber.

Others say the cost of compliance is staggering — between $20,000 and $30,000 in some instances — a financial outlay that has kept them from stepping up.

John Coy, who has lived in his 1,600-square-foot home at Indian Point for 40 years, said he knows he’s out of compliance but feels he can’t do anything about it. He and his partner Frann Todd recently had to borrow heavily against their home to cover medical expenses Todd’s mother was facing. Now, he said, he’s under water — meaning the house is worth less than his mortgage — and struggling to make ends meet.

Coy believes his system is not fouling Puget Sound, even though he acknowledges that his leach field is the beach in front of his house. But he also knows his system won’t pass muster with the county and says he doesn’t have the resources to install the kind of system the county requires.

“I told the county that if they came up with some funding, I’d be happy to do whatever they require,” he said. “It’s not a matter of not wanting to do it; it’s just a matter of funding.”

“I love living here,” he added. “It’s probably one of the nicest places I have ever lived. But by the same token, the property values around here are really depressed. … If the county pushes me hard enough, I’d just walk away. … I don’t have the money to fight.”

The state Legislature passed a law in 2007 requiring the 12 counties bordering Puget Sound to establish marine recovery areas — beaches closed to shellfish harvesting due to water pollution — and begin taking measurable steps to address the problem within five years. The goal is not only to clean up the Sound but also to reopen lucrative shellfish beds, portions of which Indian tribes have access to based on court decisions and treaty rights.

But it’s been a tough go on Vashon, the only part of King County with marine recovery areas. Many residents balked at the requirements; others didn’t bother to respond to repeated letters and notices from the county.

The situation grew more heated in the last few months, when a handful of Island activists began to take issue with the county’s failure to secure funding to help landowners who can’t afford to repair failing systems or install new ones.

Carl Sells, vice president of the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council, has led the charge, saying other counties bordering Puget Sound have found ways to provide low-interest loans or financial assistance to residents.

“King County is 20 years behind the other counties,” he said.

The neighborhoods affected, he added, are not wealthy ones. “These are old communities.”

But Fay said the county has secured funds — it had $40,000 available to cover the costs of septic system inspections, a fact it made clear in mailings to property owners and ads in The Beachcomber. Few took advantage of the program, he said. “We had to turn the balance of it back to the state.”

Fay said the county submitted four other grant requests to state and federal agencies seeking financial support for homeowners who need to install new septic systems, all of which have been turned down. He’s also met with Sells and other Islanders to explain the situation, adding that he’s grown frustrated by Sells’ role in the process.

“His misrepresentation of the facts and history make it more challenging for us,” Fay said.

Fay said he remains hopeful the county will get a $350,000 grant from the state, funds he said could help a landowner like Coy. He and Coy have talked several times, he said, and he knows his situation is difficult.

“If we could get a loan program in place, he’d be a great candidate,” Fay said.

Meanwhile, Fay added, the process is not over on Vashon. The county expects to designate other waterfront neighborhoods as marine recovery areas, including some along Vashon’s west side that could be polluting Colvos Passage.

“This isn’t the end game,” Fay said. “As I’ve mentioned at community meetings, we expect we’ll have additional designations.”

 

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