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Realtors Block Sale-Triggered Sewer Inspections

Considering options to reduce sewage spills, the City Council rejected a controversial proposal to require home sellers to inspect their own sewer connections with video cameras, a measure opposed by realtors. Instead, they asked city staff to draw up an alternate proposal that might require all property owners to examine their sewer lines with video cameras every five years.

In recent years, obstructions causing raw sewage to back up into living spaces have generally originated from roots in a private sewer connection to a home or business that creates a blockage in the city’s sewer main, according to the staff report.

Laguna Beach has greatly reduced spills caused by failures in city-maintained pipes, thanks to almost $30 million in sewer repairs over the past decade. These include installing protective lining in 16 miles of the city’s worst mains and making repairs, Water Quality Director David Shissler reported to the Council last week.

Spills from private pipes that carry wastewater are another story. Now, 90 percent of the spills stem from root invasion at the juncture of the private pipe and the city’s line, said Shissler. And a voluntary sewer monitoring ordinance adopted in 2004 to encourage property owners to maintain their connections has been ineffective, Shissler reported.

When a plumber is called to a home to investigate a back up and discovers roots obstructing the private line, he will typically deploy a snake to free the offending vegetation. Newly freed roots propelled into the city main often pile up to create a blockage at the next juncture.

Despite requests from city officials to notify them when a freed root ball is on the move, “plumbers haven’t reported to us over the last decade,” said City Manager John Pietig, who guessed they might be concerned about liability.

Last September the Council asked staff to investigate revising the city’s ordinance regulating private sewer lines. Following up, staff proposed options such as financial incentives for plumbers to report reaming out roots in private pipes and for property owners to encourage repairs. They also outlined conditions that would trigger requiring a property owner to video their private lines, such as a major remodel, a city inspection that points to root intrusion, or, most controversially, the sale of a property.

Realtors balked at the latter. Instead of singling out home sellers, and potentially jeopardizing escrows, the city should require that all private sewer connections be inspected once every five years, said local realtor and former council member Wayne Baglin, representing Laguna Board of Realtors.

Then, by including that information in the city’s real property report at the time of sale, future buyers would be made aware of the condition of the pipe. “What this does is put the repair of that lateral between the buyer and the seller,” Baglin said, similar to other repairs that are subject to negotiations.

The Council generally agreed, and directed staff to pursue some kind of city-wide videoing requirement, along with incentives to get plumbers to report root cleanings. They also directed staff to look at creative options to pay for private repairs.

A video inspection generally runs about $150, said Shissler, who pointed out that while repairs to connecting lines vary and can soar as high as $15,000, most hover around $1,600.

Still, Council member Toni Iseman noted her own repair hit the high mark.

Council member Steve Dicterow objected to potentially forcing cash-strapped residents to make costly repairs if it places their home in jeopardy. “We need to do some kind of cost sharing with the city,” he proposed, since failure to make repairs often results in costly litigation.

Staff will look into options for some kind of hardship program for people who can’t afford to repair problems revealed by inspections, Pietig said.

The Council will probably review proposed modifications to the ordinance in December, and, if approved, they would not take effect before September 2015, Shissler said.

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