Residents Say City Changed Rules, Footed Them With $10,000 Bill For Sewer Connection

By Steven Tavares

An aging century-old sewer line in San Leandro’s north side is unrepairable and the city wants an angry group of nine homeowners to foot the bill in excess of $10,000 to connect to a city-owned adjacent line.

Residents crowded the San Leandro City Council chambers Monday night howling in protest to a change in the city’s administrative code last December made relatively under the radar. A clutch of nine homes located at a stretch on Dowling/Dutton/Beverly known as the Dutton Triangle were recently told a crumbling sewer line running underneath their homes would not be repaired. The issue was tabled during Monday’s session for reconsideration, likely because of the vociferous blow back from residents.

The city, though, says the sewer line believed to have been constructed around 1900, is private property. As the area was reconfigured for homes in the 1920s, ownership of the sewer line was never accepted by the city, said Uche Udemezue, the engineering and transportation director for the city.

The city says because of the unique layout of the sewer line in the Dutton Triangle, much of the pipe passes through the backyards of homes and underneath existing structures. One two-story home at 325 Dowling was built directly above the sewer line making reconstruction unfeasible, the city says.

Residents, including the nine homeowners affected, say they were only notified earlier this year of the potential costs associated with connecting their homes to the city’s sewer main. Depending on the situation, the cost of linking their existing upper lateral to the a lower lateral could cost between $6-$10,000 with the city offering residents low-interest loans for the work. A lower lateral is defined as the section of the line connecting the home to the main under the public right of way, typically beginning at the sidewalk. A litany of residents Monday night showed uncommon anger for city officials and claimed the city surreptitiously sneaked the city code past an unsuspecting public.

“From the beginning this has been handled badly,” said Frank Hicks, who lives on Beverly across the street from the controversial sewer main. “This is a taking by the city of property.” Stephen Muller, an owner of two rental homes in the Triangle also alluded to the “apparent secrecy” of the council’s action.

Hicks charged the city with changing the city code to suit the situation. The city has known of the damaged sewer main since a video inspection was done in 2005. In May 2010, the beginning of the city’s stance recognizing the sewer to be private property was detailed in a facilities committee meeting and again there in November of last year. The amendment was unanimously approved by the council Dec. 21 within the consent calendar and without much discussion. But, many feel the potentially large expenditure was sprung on them with little discussion.

“It was not until weeks after the council was presented with this fait accompli–with no discussion with city residents–that people were finally told early this year that they were going to be on the hook for $6-$10,000,” said Hicks.

The city code does not specifically deal with just the aging line in the north area, but potential anywhere in San Leandro where similar private lines were built, in some cases, with just brick and mortar. “Make no mistake,” Hicks said, “if this precedent holds it will affect hundreds of homes principally but not entirely in the north area.” He also passed around a letter dated April 17, 2008 from the city to homeowners saying the repairs to the main would be done at no costs to residents.

Udemezue said many residents assume sewers lines are always public properties, such as roads and bridges, but this is not always the case. Heron Bay, the newer development near the Marina, for example, contains private facilities, he added. The unique problem with the Dutton Triangle properties is because of its age, the sewer main was never dedicated to the city, nor accepted; therefore private, said Udemezue. City Manager Stephen Hollister noted its legal counsel also recognizes the sewer main as private, according to existing law.

This is likely not the end of this nascent argument between public and private city properties with some residents talking up the possibility of a lawsuit. In coming weeks, the issue is slated to return for council discussion.