Huge fines ahead for ignoring sewer line inspection requests

By Susan Mustapich | Sep 05, 2018
Photo by: Susan Mustapich The town of Camden will inform 125 property owners of looming fines for non-response to requests for sewer line inspections or repairs, though Select Board members hold different views on how to handle the problem.

CAMDEN — Property owners who have not responded to multiple requests for sewer-line inspections by the wastewater department will face fines of $100 per day, if they do not schedule the inspections by Sept. 12.

Wastewater Superintendent David Bolstridge informed select board members Sept. 4 that this is the fourth summer in a row where his department has inspected residential and commercial sewer and wastewater connections, to identify properties where those lines are connected and repair is needed. Sewer and wastewater lines were separated in the 1970s when the town's first wastewater treatment plant was built, according to Bolstridge, and it is illegal to run stormwater drains into sewer lines.

He said about 25 percent of properties were inspected this year, and approximately 11 percent of properties remain to be inspected.

Bolstridge said letters sent by the town requesting inspections began in 2015. He said about 120 property owners have not responded to the requests, including a certified letter sent in January with a 150-day deadline, and a letter sent in July with a 60-day deadline extension.

Five property owners who allowed inspections, and where stormwater connections to the sewer system were found, have not responded to requests to schedule repairs outlined in two certified letters with the same 150-day deadline, and 60-day extension.

In total, the 125 property owners are facing steep daily fines if they do not arrange inspections or repairs by the Sept. 12 deadline, according to Bolstridge.

The vast majority of property owners who have received letters have complied, and were informed of the consequences if they did not comply, Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell said. She explained that fines would be handled by the water company, which issues the sewer bills.

Bolstridge explained that once or twice a year, stormwater enters and overflows the sewer system, sending untreated sewage into Camden Harbor.

Responding to a question from Tyler Smith about whether residential wastewater was the real culprit, instead of the town's sewer and wastewater system, Bolstridge said the towns sewer and wastewater lines are separate, and erroneous connections have been fixed over the years.

Bolstridge said Sept. 5 that the overflows usually occur in the spring when heavy rain and snow-melt combine. The overflows usually occur at the Sea Street and Bay View Street pump stations. The town's sewer pipes have been inspected to correct any cross connections. In recent years, Bolstridge has overseen the repair of sewer manholes that were not properly sealed and allowed groundwater to enter. Inspections of town sewer lines are ongoing, he said.

The Department of Environmental Protection monitors the town's work to eliminate illegal connections between the two systems. The DEP can place the town under a legal order if it does not comply with the mandate to eliminate the illegal connections, according to Bolstridge.

Board member Alison McKellar objected to daily fines of $100 per day for those who had not responded to certified letters. She cited concerns that residents may not have seen the letters. She questioned whether sewer charges of daily fines totaling thousands of dollars would be withdrawn from residents' bank accounts, if they used auto-pay for sewer bills, causing overdrafts and bounced checks for essential needs such as grocery bills and day care. She repeated a suggestion that the board hold a special town meeting and change the daily fine to a surcharge, that would increase the monthly bill. She reminded Caler-Bell that the surcharge was discussed earlier in the year before the letter with the 150-day deadline was sent.

Board member Marc Ratner believes some property owners might be willing to pay a surcharge, while refusing inspections or repairs, and that this would bring about a DEP action against the town. He asked Bolstridge if the fines could be waived if a property owner takes actions to comply.

Bob Falciani, board chairman, favors informing all 125 property owners of the looming fines and deadline of Sept. 12 to either schedule an inspection, or needed repairs. The board discussed the suggestion that property owner names and addresses be published within the next two weeks, as is done when property taxes are not paid, to call attention to the seriousness of the issue.

Board member Jenna Lookner asked if there was any action the town could take other than the $100 daily fines. Her concern is that property owners may know they are facing expensive costs to repair stormwater connections, and that once the water company begins billing fines, the town will have no recourse to remove the fines.

Caler-Bell said she hesitates to advise that board members change the sewer ordinance to modify the fines. She explained that many property owners throughout the community have been informed about the need for sewer line inspections and repairs, and the nature of the fines if they did not comply. She said following through with the fines is an issue of the town's credibility, and doing what the town has said it was going to do.

Board members agreed that the property owner names and addresses would be published, and the fines publicized. They tasked Bolstridge and Caler-Bell with looking into whether the sewer ordinance allows fines to be waived if property owners take the requested actions, and how the waivers would be done.

The board discussed the problem of maintaining correct addresses. Caler-Bell said the town has seen problems with determining the correct address to reach property owners in cases of foreclosure and sewer liens. Bolstridge confirmed Sept. 5 that the town has verified it has the correct address for the 125 properties where owners have not responded to inspection and repair letters.

Comments (4)
Posted by: Steven D Bryant | Sep 09, 2018 07:52

Thank you Allison. None of these proactive steps were mentioned in the article. Appreciate the update as I know this is a major problem for our streets and harbors.

Posted by: Alison S McKellar | Sep 08, 2018 10:19

Thanks, Steve. The certified letters came very late in the process. Multiple rounds of door knocking has also happened. The publishing of the names is meant to be a helpful way to avoid the automatic addition of $100/day fines onto sewer bills. Sometimes even certified letters can go unread or unseen for a variety of reasons. By publishing the list of names this helps all of us to look over the list and see who we know on there who might need to have a friend or family member reach out with a reminder. It is not meant to be shaming tactic.

A lot of work is going into this because we have a sewer system that currently overflows into the streets and harbor when we get a lot of rain. Since the town is taking proactive steps to address the problem, we are avoiding fines and enforcement action from the DEP. Most people so far have answered the knocks on their doors and invited the inspection. In the homes where issues have been detected, most people have understood the importance of fixing things and have worked to do this. There are also some people who have very consciously chosen not to let the town inspect their connections, for a variety of different reasons.

Anyway, rest assured that door knocking has happened. A lot of the addresses, from what I've heard, appear to be rental properties that are managed by property management companies or they are homes where the owners reside elsewhere most of the time.

Posted by: Steven D Bryant | Sep 07, 2018 06:16

If this is such a serious problem (sure sounds like it is) , why not go door to door with a friendly visit instead of sitting on your asses discussing solutions. Mainers get shit done when asked politely. Or they always have in the 60 years I've been in the C-R community. Posting names and addresses just pits one neighbor against  another and creates discourse. Take the hours spent by these "powers that be" sitting in front of a computer sending emails to people who are sitting in front of a computer who are spending hours coming up with an email reply and their combined payroll would probably cover the cost of the 125 fines that they are wanting to impose. What happened to our "neighbors helping each other in time of needs? A knock on the door might bring about a cup of coffee and an explanation. Perhaps some of these folks just need "friendly advice" not threatening certified letters. It feels like an awful lot of man hours are being spent and nothing being accomplished. Which is a true testament to the lack of social skills our parents and teachers taught in the past. Alas, shit rolls down hill and eventually someone pays. To bad the town can't just quietly get this remedied and move on to another needed project. Perhaps some of the 125 neighbors might even help. Every thing in life is a team effort. Come on Camden be a team. If you want this done, stand up from behind your desks and start to act like Mainers not robots.

Posted by: Jeff Sukeforth | Sep 06, 2018 10:44

If the folks who were sent certified letters accepted them, did they not have to sign for the mail, which if so means they accept the contents announcing a fine will be imposed.  If true then saying folks have not perhaps seen the contents of the letter is a moot point.

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