Los Osos homeowners could be fined $5,500 a day for failing to connect to sewer

A worker installs a lateral connection from a Los Osos home to the main sewer line last month.
A worker installs a lateral connection from a Los Osos home to the main sewer line last month. mvaughan@thetribunenews.com

Los Osos residents who fail to connect to the county sewer system could face a maximum state penalty of $5,000 a day and a county penalty of up to $500 day for violating wastewater ordinances.

As of Wednesday, the county identified about 365 Los Osos property owners who have yet to connect to the year-old sewer system, as mandated by the county to bring the community into compliance with state water code.

That’s about 10 percent of the total number of hookups required in the community. It does not include 98 low-income residents whose connection costs will be paid for by the county.

The county might begin issuing fines in September, but only after the county Board of Supervisors approves taking action. The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Board won’t likely issue any penalties until after the county begins its enforcement efforts.

Meanwhile, Public Works staff are reaching out to property owners to identify why some people aren’t connecting and to help them hook up.

They speculate that some haven’t yet connected because contractors are backed up, and they’re on a waiting list. Some live out of town and aren’t fully aware of the obligations. Others may dig their heels in, in opposition to the sewer. Others simply can’t afford it.

Robert Shipe, who served on the sewer project's Technical Advisory Committee, was the first Los Osos resident to connect to the new sewer system Monday, March 29, 2016.

The cost to install a lateral connection from a property to the sewer system can run from $2,500 to $15,000, depending on the difficulty of the job. On top of that one-time expense, residents pay an average of $165 a month to pay for the sewer system and will be paying additional fees based on use.

Although neither the state nor the county plan to issue fines anytime soon, the impact of the mounting costs of the sewer coupled with the threat of monetary penalties has raised questions about housing affordability in the coastal town. Some low-income households that don’t qualify for a county program may consider selling their homes.

“It’s a challenge,” said Mark Hutchinson, deputy director of county Public Works.

Those who don’t qualify for the low-income program may be able to work with a private company on financing options, like taking out a second mortgage on their home.

But “not everyone is in the position to get money out of their house. Those are the people that end up selling out,” Hutchinson said.

County Supervisor Bruce Gibson said he has directed county staff to work closely with homeowners one-on-one toward a solution that they can afford.

“I care very much about keeping folks in their homes in Los Osos, and we have a variety of techniques we’re going to employ to try and make that happen,” Gibson said.

Those who haven’t yet hooked up are violating a prohibition on discharging waste water enacted by the state in 1983 when it was found that an excess of septic systems was to blame for increased nitrates in the groundwater that can be dangerous to human health.

“State law specifies a maximum penalty of $5,000 per day of violation of the prohibition. That can add up quickly to a very large amount of money,” said Harvey Packard, supervising engineer with the Central Coast water board.

State fines are likely far down the road. It’s an administrative process that involves quite a few steps, including a notice of violation and then a complaint. And property owners could contest the penalty.

“In the future, it may be necessary for the water board to exercise its enforcement authority,” Packard said. “The water board has demonstrated that it is willing to use that authority.”

County fines for violating county municipal codes start at $100 a day and whether the accused does not respond or takes no action within the month, the fine bumps up to $500 a day.

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930, @MonicaLVaughan