City Council postpones Old Town water, sewer improvements until new year

Landowners criticize assessment method for Bunnell Avenue, Charles Way water and sewer plan.

After hearing numerous testimonies from Bunnell Avenue and Charles Way neighborhood residents concerning the water and sewer improvement special assessment district and a recommendation from the Public Works director, the Homer City Council on Monday voted to postpone making a decision regarding the special assessment district until the Jan. 24, 2022 meeting when a better proposal can be made.

The special assessment district was first proposed in May to bring city water and sewer to the Bunnell Avenue and Charles Way neighborhood; however, several property owners in the area have protested the construction due to the cost and stated lack of need of the upgrades.

Rick Vann owns a property with his wife Connie in the Bishop Beach area and testified during the meeting that it was unnecessary to hook up water and sewer to their lot because they wouldn’t use the utilities, which they previously decided not to acquire when the city first installed spaghetti lines to the area over a decade ago. The couple put in a septic tank instead to forgo the monthly payments. “Spaghetti line” refers to a landowner extending water and sewer to their property from a nearby existing line.

“Connie and I own a piece of property down there and they (the city) are assessing it at $125,000 for water and sewer to it. … Probably 18, 17 years ago, we could have put water and sewer in there legally through spaghetti lines and so forth,” he said. “I own a construction company and could have done it at a reasonable rate, but it really wasn’t the cost to hook up the water and sewer that drove us to put in a regular septic because we had the area which to do it. It was really the monthly bill for water and sewer that over the last 17 years would have probably added up $15,000 or so just in the monthly payments.”

“I’m 65 years old and trying to retire,” Vann continued. “If you add it up over the course of 10 years, the assessment would be over a thousand dollars a month to have water and sewer for something we’ll never use.”

Matt Johnson, who co-owns two lots with his sister on Charles Way, said he believes the benefited area method was flawed because the use of water and sewer utilities is not related to the size of the parcel. His properties were assessed to more than $100,000, which he said is “untenable,” and unnecessary.

“We believe that this method, the benefited area, is arbitrary and punitive,” Johnson said. “It deflects costs from the City of Homer onto the backs of a minority of property owners in a biased and inequitable manner. We hope that this flawed methodology will be set aside in favor for a plan that treats all citizens of the area equally and equitably.”

Resolution 21-057 (S-2), which was substituted in place of Resolution 21-057 (S), if passed would have acknowledged the sufficiency of the water and sewer improvement special assessment district and approved the improvement plan, estimated cost of improvement and assessment methodology. The resolution called for a benefited area methodology for assessing properties to be applied, which would determine property owners’ financial responsibilities based on the size of their lots in what the resolution called the most equitable way.

According to Jan Keiser, director of Public Works, postponing their decision on the resolution would be beneficial for all parties involved until a better solution could be determined.

“I can honestly say that special assessment districts are the most challenging part of this job because you’re dealing with two things people really care deeply about and have strong feelings about: their pocket book and their property,” Keiser said during the meeting.

Keiser explained that Homer city codes allow the city to move forward with a special assessment district if they receive approval from 51% of the affected residents. According to Keiser, the project currently has the support of 58% of the residents, but the benefited area assessment is still not the best way to go.

“Right now we have for the Charles Way/Bunnell Avenue district 58%. But I’m not recommending that we do move it forward. I want to do some more work on some more different ideas and see if we can come up with a better compromise,” Keiser said. “That’s usually what these districts turn out to be is some kind of compromise which most of the neighbors can agree on. Our goal really is to benefit the neighborhood, not antagonize it and alienate it.”

“We are trying to solve a problem. We have houses down in this neighborhood, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Homer, where we have raw sewage seeping into the wetlands,” Keiser said. “… We also want to remember that this is a challenging area. It’s wet and it’s flat. A challenging technical environment is code for ‘expensive.’ We’re going to keep that in mind as we figure out the best solution for helping the community down there get water and sewer to their properties.”

The city has held several neighborhood meetings, as well as a public hearing, concerning the matter, and while they continue to discuss further plans, council member Rachel Lord emphasized the importance of remaining in contact with the residents to inform them of any updates.

“I want to make sure as we’re going through the different levels of considerations of ‘what about this?’ or ‘how about this?’ that we’re doing really good communication with the neighborhood, with the property owners in the neighborhood, to make sure that everybody’s aware of the steps and where we are in the process,” Lord said.

There currently is not a deadline for the project, especially during the winter when construction can’t be done, so Keiser reassured the council that there is time to find a better solution to the lack of water and sewer lines in the area.

After several testimonies from residents over the course of the project’s timeline and the meeting on Monday, the decision to postpone a final answer was one council member Caroline Venuti was proud of.

“I’m so proud to be on a council that listens, and I’m really happy that we had public testimony and letters because this is something that is extremely important to all of us,” Venuti said.

The City of Homer received a $220,000 grant from the Department of Environmental Conservation for the water portion of the project, but Keiser explained that it was unlikely the city would receive any more funding for the sewer and water improvement.

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The next city council meeting will be Jan. 10 in the Cowles Council Chambers located in City Hall.

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