Project ought to go forward

Published 1:02 pm Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Austin City Council should move forward with the Lansing sewer project, provided two questions can be answered affirmatively.

When the city annexed the Lansing area at the request of area residents it was with the specific purpose of extending sewer service to a group of homes for which that service would be a significant upgrade. Some of those homes directly pollute the Cedar River by “straight-piping” sewage into the water. Others have mound or in-ground septic systems, all of which will eventually need replacement. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, however, and the residents who will receive the benefits of city sewer service are expected to pay for the installation of mains and hook-ups — $16,000 per property. Based on estimates from the city’s engineering staff, those assessments are a fair deal. For homeowners who have straight-pipe systems, the sewer assessment would be much better than the alternative, a perpetual $500-per-month pollution fine starting in January. For those with mound and in-ground systems, the sewer assessment should still be palatable, because it is less costly in the long run.

A vocal group of residents, however, do not accept those arguments. Some do not like being forced to accept a city service and the attendant expense while their own, private septic systems remain operational. Others own undeveloped lots which they use as “buffers” from neighboring property, and do not want to be assessed for sewer service that they believe will never be used on their undeveloped lots. And, they argue, the assessments exceed the lots’ real estate value.

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The city faces some risk that angry residents would sue in district court to stop the project, potentially costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and as much as $1 million in lost assessments.

City government and Lansing residents are not the only parties with a stake in the matter. Some of the pollution in the Cedar River undoubtedly comes from the Lansing area, and the waters of the Cedar River flow through Austin and on past thousands of other individual properties. If something can be done to make a dent in that pollution, it should be done. Further, in-ground and mound systems that work well now, will eventually fail and are a significant risk to add their own loads of pollution at some point in the future.

The bottom line is that the sewer project makes sense for the environment, for everyone downstream and even for the majority of property owners. Which brings us to two points on which city leaders should get an affirmative answer.

First, has the city received good legal advice to date? If so, the project should be in good shape to withstand court challenges. And no city (or individual) should be held hostage to threats of a lawsuit.

Second, can a way be found to avoid penalizing owners of undeveloped properties who would, as it now stands, eventually have to pay multiple assessments for their single household? Perhaps making the city’s current assessment deferral offer a bit more generous would the “spoonful of sugar,” that is needed.

The City of Austin, and many Lansing residents, have moved forward on the proposed sewer project for excellent reasons. It’s a project that makes sense for most residents, for the city and for the environment. Provided the city is confident that the project meets legal requirements and that a way can be found to avoid undue penalties to owners of multiple properties, it should get final City Council approval this month.