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Frank Gray

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Homeowners’ septic system situations turn messier

A couple of months ago we wrote about a woman named Carol Witt, whose septic system was damaged when a line was destroyed by nearby construction.

The health department had first visited her property on Union Chapel Road in June and ordered her to repair the system.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Both Carol Witt and her husband had lost their jobs during the recession. They only recently got back to work.

There were possible solutions to their septic difficulty.

Their home, which they’ve owned for about 10 years, is in the Leo-Cedarville sewer district, but that district wouldn’t permit them to hook up.

There is a pilot program that lets the Allen County Regional Water and Sewer District extend lines to provide service to people with septic systems. The Witts, told they could get a grant that would rescue them, spent a lot of money on soil samples and other tests. But then they learned they didn’t qualify because they are in the Leo-Cedarville Sewer District.

The Leo-Cedarville District, which refuses to serve them, could have turned the Witts over to the regional district, making them eligible for the program, but wouldn’t.

As all this dragged on, the septic system season, so to speak, passed. Even if they had the money to put in a new system today, they couldn’t do it, Witt said. “If Frank Gray came here tomorrow and gave me a check for $20,000, I couldn’t do it.”

I spoke to a company that installs septic systems and was told septic systems can be installed only in the warmer months. After winter weather sets in, about four weeks of 60-degree weather is needed before the soil is right to install a system.

Well, this month the Witts got a letter from the health department. It was called an order to vacate. Translation: Get out within 10 days.

Happy New Year, the Witts are being kicked out of their home.

They aren’t alone, though. On the other end of the county, on the southwest side, other people are getting similar orders to vacate.

Paul Becraft got his letter on Dec. 29, ordering him out in 10 days or have his sewage pumped and hauled away each month, which costs hundreds of dollars a month.

Becraft, who says he was ordered in November to correct his system, contends his septic system hasn’t failed and that there is no sewage leaking on his property. Still, he arranged a $20,000 loan to install a new system and hired a contractor, but work had to stop because of the weather.

So on Dec. 29 he was ordered to vacate his split-level home, too.

The problem is, when a government agency decides to order people out of their homes, it causes problems, and what if you can’t afford the hundreds of dollars to regularly pump out the system?

In Becraft’s case, he said nothing has happened yet, and he’s not sure what to do.

Carol Witt said simply, “They got us.”

She said they had to hire a contractor to dig up their septic system and will have to “pump and haul” every month now “for the rest of our lives.”

Can they afford it? They’re on a fence, she said. If they can’t pay both the house payment and the fee to pump and haul, something has to give. Don’t make the mortgage payment and lose the house. Don’t pay for the pump and haul and be ordered out of the home.

They’ll never be able to sell the house, either, Witt said.

The health department says there are 15,000 homes in the county with septic systems and an additional 5,000 that never got permits. Systems that drain into creeks were banned in the late 1990s, we’re told, but those systems remain and they slip by – until someone complains. Once a problem is brought to their attention, health department officials say, they are mandated to correct the problem.

Witt’s neighbors, many elderly who are also on septic systems, are terrified that the same thing will happen to them – that they, too, will be ordered out of their homes, Witt said.

There’s plenty of fear to go around.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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