March 23, 2009 in City

Lawmakers target mobile home septic systems

By The Spokesman-Review
 

OLYMPIA – It doesn’t look like a battleground, but a Spokane Valley mobile home park is once again at the heart of a state clash between environmental concerns and affordable housing.

For years, Pinecroft mobile home park has been resisting state and local pressure to abandon its septic tanks and hook up to local sewers. The park says it could cost up to $1 million, which residents can’t afford. And the septic system is working fine, manager Ed Wolfe said.

“If there was a problem, then I could understand it,” Wolfe said. “But there isn’t.”

But county officials, some state lawmakers and the state’s environmental regulators point to what’s underneath Pinecroft and some other local mobile home parks: the sole-source aquifer that supplies the region’s drinking water. With county taxpayers and local industries spending millions of dollars to scrub phosphates and nitrates from wastewater, they say, it’s time to do away with a 1998 law that treats mobile home parks differently.

State Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, said he’s worried about the health of the aquifer and the fairness of who’s paying the cost of cleaner water.

“Is it fair for residents of mobile home parks not to face sewer construction costs when their neighbors have to?” said Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane. “We basically have one class of customers who’s exempt.”

Marr’s Senate Bill 5507, which would apply only to Spokane County, would require any mobile home park over the region’s sole-source aquifer to connect to a sewer system if one is available. Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown is co-sponsoring the bill.

“We are requiring very high levels of treatment” from local governments and industry, the Department of Ecology’s Melode Selby told House lawmakers recently. “And that’s not going to be enough.”

It will also mean preventing pollution from things like septic systems and fertilizer runoff, Selby said.

Trying to preserve affordable housing, state lawmakers in 1998 passed a bill banning local governments from requiring mobile home parks to connect to sewers. Sewers can be required, however, if local health officials decide that a park’s septic system is failing.

When cities and counties tried charging the parks fees for having sewer service available – regardless of whether they hooked up or not – lawmakers in 2003 banned that, too. Pinecroft’s owners also went to court to stop $403,000 in such fees from Spokane County. The park won.

The parks continue to argue that if something’s wrong, health officials can order a sewer hookup. And they say their renters can’t pay more.

“This bill is about affordable housing,” said Walt Olsen, Pinecroft’s attorney.

Rent at the park is $345 a month now, he said. In addition to the hookup costs, he says, it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to move homes, tear up roads and install sewer lines throughout the park. If the owners try to recoup those costs over the next five years, he says, it would add $120 a month to the cost of renting a space.

“You are hitting the people who can least afford to be hit,” Olsen told lawmakers.

Selby said there are grants to help low-income communities pay for sewers.

While a properly working septic system does a good job of filtering and eliminating bacteria, she said, it does little to remove phosphorus and nitrates.

In rural areas, she said, plants can absorb those chemicals as nutrients. But in urban areas, a dense concentration of septic systems becomes a problem. That’s particularly true in Spokane, she said, where the soil chemistry lacks the ability to absorb nitrogen.

Marr says he understands the concerns about affordability, although he says the parks also have 20 years to pay off the costs. That would reduce the cost to park residents to $30 more per month.

Richard Roesler can be reached at (360) 664-2598 or by e-mail at richr@spokesman.com.

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