Vashon Islanders face $25-a-day fines over septic systems
Vashon Island residents are fighting what many consider the Septic System War with King County as new regulations force them to make costly upgrades to leaking septic systems, in an effort to protect Puget Sound. Some 35 now are being fined $25 a day.
Seattle Times staff reporter
VASHON ISLAND — The cabin overlooking the beach at Quartermaster Harbor was built more than 80 years ago, when the island was a retreat for city dwellers seeking the peace of the pristine beach.
No one thought of building permits. Nor septic systems. The outhouse with the crescent moon in the door worked fine for decades. Who needed plumbing?
Gary Feroglia, 71, whose grandfather hauled wood from a boat up the hill to build the cabin, didn't care. As a youth, Feroglia spent summers there building rafts and campfires.
Whether it's on Vashon, Whidbey or Bainbridge, turning old waterfront cottages into pricey full-time residences has become common, and so is water pollution from the antiquated septic systems.
On Vashon, 263 homes, most built long ago, have been targeted by Public Health — Seattle & King County as pollution culprits, responsible for leaking fecal coliform into Quartermaster Harbor, adversely affecting shellfish. In 2008, the health department told the residents they would need to upgrade their septic systems and began a campaign of "intense hand-holding" to encourage it, said Larry Fay, health-department division manager.
Most residents have complied, spending $20,000 to $50,000 for the upgrades. But 35 homeowners are holdouts, officials say, and Sunday, the county started fining them $25 a day — fees that will accrue and could result in liens against the properties.
But just what the health department will do with those not complying hasn't been decided yet.
"All they have to do is contact us" and they won't be fined, Fay said. The department is willing to work with residents — so willing that Feroglia's property passed muster and can be used as it is.
"We would never approve a (new) outhouse today," Fay said, but Feroglia's outhouse was far from the beach and wasn't leaking into the Sound, so "we let sleeping dogs lie," he said.
But for much of Vashon, it's septic war with Public Health.
"The islanders are really furious about this," said Carl Sells, vice president of the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council.
The controversy began in 2006 when the Legislature, to keep its obligation to Indian tribes, required counties to clean up the water in areas where shellfish harvesting was closed or threatened by failing septic systems. Vashon was the only area in King County with a problem — and the properties surrounding Quartermaster Harbor were suspect.
Water quality at stake
Scott Berbells of the state Department of Health said tests were done both in the harbor, where fecal coliform wasn't found in any great quantities, and around bulkheads, where bacteria levels were higher. The state closed the area to commercial shellfish harvest, although there hadn't been any for decades, and tagged the area for cleanup.
"Most people care about Puget Sound and the water quality," Fay said. It's ideal to clean up the Sound anyway and Vashon's water supply comes from a single aquifer that could eventually be at risk if septic systems continue to fail, he said.
Islanders certainly want clean water, Sells said. It's the cost of getting it that's a concern.
Waterfront communities in Island and Thurston counties were able to get low-interest loans to help residents upgrade and repair septic systems. Those haven't been available in King County even though there are a variety of state and federal funding sources to which the county can apply.
"We need help," Sells said.
Fay said King County has applied several times for funding but never received it because the documented need — either in the numbers of failing systems or the numbers of those who can't pay — hasn't been there.
When we're talking about homes involved, "we're not talking low-income folks," Fay said.
Sells said the people being fined are on fixed incomes and can't afford the upgrades, and know that because of their financial circumstances they won't qualify for the loans.
The help other counties have received is a sore spot for the islanders, he said. They want King County to offer affordable loans, as other counties have.
It's easier for counties to get funds for loans when there's a major crisis such as fish dying, which happened in Jefferson County, Fay said. The King County department recently applied for a $350,000 grant from the state and, if that's approved, would provide low-cost loans for septic-system repair, he said.
Those getting the upgrades aren't immune from further county scrutiny, Fay said. The identified properties on Vashon will be required to go through annual septic-system testing, he said.
Repairs aren't cheap
Along the beach at Quartermaster Harbor, Bill Rowling checks the seed oysters growing in plastic bags. He wants to commercially raise shellfish but can't get a permit because the water is too polluted.
He upgraded the septic system at his white house along the beach and passed the county inspection. The cost: $30,000, not including hours of work that family members did themselves, a savings they estimate at $20,000.
"To me the problem is that the county isn't willing to discuss any attempt the homeowner comes up with to fix the problem," said Jim Symbol, 62. "A lot of people can't come up with $30,000 to $40,000."
Symbol was one of 133 people who earlier this year received a notice of violation from the county. He contacted the county to avoid a fine and to see what his waterfront home might need. He was told there was no diagram of his septic system on file. He had to hire someone to draw one, which cost $500. Then he tested his system as instructed, by dropping dye down the toilet. It showed up in the drain field, a sign his septic system was failing. The county prohibited him from using his septic system.
He's in a quandary.
"Even if you can get financing, can you afford to pay for it?" asked his neighbor Kerry Weaver, 57, who lives in a shingle-sided cottage on the beach and is unemployed.
Weaver contacted the health department and passed the dye test. But that was not the end of it. She was told by the health-department inspector that her drain field was too close to a stream running through a culvert, and was instructed to hire an engineer to draw the line from the septic tank and to uncover the entire drain field.
"I'm unemployed. How do I pay for an engineer?" Weaver asked, let alone someone to dig and expose the drain field. "He suggested I do it myself to save money."
Some islanders have walked away from their homes and let the banks repossess them. Others have put their homes up for sale. Feroglia thought he'd have to sell his grandfather's cabin.
Now that he has the OK, he won't have to "live on the memories."
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @BartleyNews.