County faces tough go in efforts to clean up Quartermaster

Richard Gordon and his father Bob Gordon are concerned about the septic system that serves their small cabin on Magnolia Beach. - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Richard Gordon and his father Bob Gordon are concerned about the septic system that serves their small cabin on Magnolia Beach.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

After two years of effort, King County officials have made little headway in a far-reaching attempt to get homeowners along the western shore of outer Quartermaster Harbor to address failing septic systems that are fouling the wildlife-rich bay.

By 2012, according to state law, the county must have completed an inventory of all the septic systems within Vashon’s marine recovery areas, identified those systems that are failing and gotten homeowners to repair or replace them.

But county officials, by their own admission, have met resistance on the part of homeowners. Despite several meetings, no homeowner has stepped forward to allow the county to take a look at his or her system, and none has agreed to work publicly with county officials to find a solution to a system that may be failing or inadequate.

Few, apparently, even want to talk to the county about the issue. County officials attempted to find a resident who would host a neighborhood meeting to discuss their efforts, but no one within the marine recovery area along outer Quartermaster Harbor would sponsor the gathering.

County officials are now planning to go door-to-door to talk to residents, although a warning by one Islander that county visits could constitute a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights has caused the county to postpone its first neighborhood visit, which was scheduled for this weekend.

Larry Fay, section manager for community environmental health for Public Health — Seattle & King County, said he’s frustrated by the setbacks but also understands Islanders’ hesitation. Fay, who undertook a similar effort in Jefferson County, knew it would be a hard go on Vashon, where the county’s extensive regulations and Islanders’ spirited independence have created a legacy of conflict and mistrust.

“I think we have a long, long history that we are working to overcome,” Fay said.

But he said he also has been heartened by the “civil discourse” he’s participated in since the county began its efforts two years ago and believes attitudes on the Island are slowly beginning to change. The door-belling plan, he hopes, will enable him and his colleagues to address concerns and convey information about what some still consider a suspect effort.

“We’re trying to shift the dialogue so that there’s a greater level of trust,” he said.

State legislators passed a law in 2007 requiring the 12 counties bordering Puget Sound to establish marine recovery areas — areas closed to shellfish harvesting due to water pollution — and begin taking measurable steps to address the problem within five years. The goal is to not only 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.

In King County, officials identified five marine recovery areas — all of them on Vashon. The biggest one stretches from Governor’s Row in Burton to Neill Point at the southern tip of Vashon — a swath of shoreline that takes in about 110 homes, many of them small waterfront cabins built decades ago. Four smaller recovery areas were established on the eastern side of Vashon — distinct communities in an area that extends from Dolphin Point to Klahanie.

But the stakes are high — not only for the health of Puget Sound but also for those who own homes in the marine recovery areas. A new septic system can cost between $15,000 and $40,000. And in some instances, the topography — tiny strips of land tucked between the Sound and a steep bank — makes it particularly challenging.

What’s more, King County officials — unlike those in some of the other counties surrounding the Sound — have been unable to come up with financial incentives to make it easier for homeowners, some noted.

In Jefferson, Kitsap and Mason counties, for instance, ShoreBank Enterprise Cas-cadia, a nonprofit bank that focuses on community and environmental sustainability, received seed money from the Gates Foundation to begin a revolving loan fund — which now offers loans at interest rates as low as 2 percent.

Terry Hull, who heads ShoreBank’s Hood Canal Regional Septic Loan Pro-gram, said the effort has been successful: In the last two years, the bank has been able to work with those three counties to get 164 septics repaired. Skagit, Thurston and Island counties were able to use public money to get a similar program established, he said.

But Hull, who has worked closely with Fay in his efforts to get some traction on Vashon, said funding is hard to come by. “We’re all scouring the landscape for funding that will allow us to make this happen.”

King County’s political leadership has also been unwilling to commit county funds, he said.

“Most of the funding for clean water improvements goes to big, centralized facilities. ... The political leaders have left septic systems to the health department and individual homeowners,” he noted.

Steve Graham, who chairs the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council’s Septic Solutions Committee, said it’s a bit of a chicken-and-an-egg problem: Because residents won’t step forward, the county can’t get its arms around the problem — but without a sense of the extent of the problem, grants to establish a funding program are virtually impossible to secure.

“We couldn’t represent it as a shovel-ready project,” he said.

But Graham, like others familiar with the situation, said he understands homeowners’ hesitation. Over the years, the county has gained a reputation for being difficult to work with. “I’ve heard lots of homeowner horror stories.”

Graham, who’s retired, has poured countless hours into the issue of cleaner septics — in part, he said, because he believes it’s essential that Vashon find a way to clean up Quartermaster. The bay is a critical stop along the Pacific Flyway and was declared an “important bird area” by the national Audubon Society several years ago. Its eelgrass beds provide nurseries for a variety of fish species, animals that support a food chain that ultimately feeds orcas.

“We need to build sustainable, ecologically balanced communities,” he added. “This is just part of it. But it’s an important part. And it seems solvable. ... It’s a matter of will and funding.”

But Fay said that even though no one has been willing to step forward and act as an advocate for the county’s effort, applications for septic repair and replacement are on the rise on Vashon — suggesting that some are “quietly taking care of issues,” he said.

And some residents say they’re thinking hard about what the county is asking them to do.

Richard Gordon, who owns

two adjacent cabins at Mag-nolia Beach, said he’s considered becoming what he calls the county’s “poster boy” for its efforts to clean up Quartermaster. He finds Fay reasonable and sympathetic, he noted. And he believes that homeowners have a responsibility to do what’s right.

“I’m as interested in ecology as anyone else,” he said.

He notes that the septic system that serves the small cabin his father bought more than 50 years ago “doesn’t seem to be failing.” At the same time, he added, “Once (the sewage) gets out of the septic tank, I don’t really know where it goes, and I’d feel better knowing that.”

But Gordon said he’s hesitant to step forward now — in part because he believes that county officials might in fact find a pool of money that will enable the county to offer homeowners like Gordon innovative financing. Or they might approve some new kinds of technology or support a neighborhood-wide fix.

“It would be disheartening to spend $30,000 on a personal system — and then two years later they develop a community solution,” he said.

He also fears he could dump thousands of dollars into a septic design, only to have the county deny it without telling him why the design didn’t pass muster. That’s the way the system currently works, he noted.

“I’d be the poster child tomorrow if I knew that wouldn’t happen,” he said. “But I wouldn’t take a verbal promise. ... I would need to see an important person’s signature on a letter telling me it was possible.”

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