Residents of Duluth neighborhood left with tab for waterline breaksThe recent plight of a dozen households in Duluth’s Bayview Heights neighborhood reveals once again that what you don’t know about homeownership can deal you a painful financial blow.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
The recent plight of a dozen households in Duluth’s Bayview Heights neighborhood reveals once again that what you don’t know about homeownership can deal you a painful financial blow.
When he purchased his home in the 2900 block of 85th Avenue West nearly eight years ago, Dean Peterson had no idea that he and 11 of his neighbors shared a private waterline that was on the verge of failure.
Likewise, Dave Ogren, who bought a home a block away from Peterson on 85th a few years later, said he was unaware the residence was served by a private shared line until it broke — and he got his first bill.
In the past five years, Ogren said the faltering line has broken four times — most recently on Jan. 18, when 12 households on 85th went without water for five days before a fix could be made.
City Councilor Jay Fosle, who represents the neighborhood, is urging the city to offer some assistance.
“At least we could see if there are any grants available to help,” he said.
In this case, the pipe was finally repaired at a cost of about $2,400, leaving Peterson, Ogren and neighbors who share the line to pick up the tab — $200 apiece.
“These people have been paying their water bills and different fees for years,” Fosle said, suggesting the problem line could be replaced with a city-owned main before it ruptures again. “Maybe there’s some way to defray a portion of the cost, but they’ll probably need to be assessed.”
Undersized and substandard
Eric Shaffer, chief utilities engineer for the city of Duluth, said the water line probably was installed by a cost-cutting private developer who chose not to have the city lay the pipe that would deliver water to the avenue’s residents. Shaffer said he couldn’t be sure exactly what the circumstances were when the 50-plus-year-old water main was installed. But the line wasn’t built to required city specifications at the time, which is why it was classified as a private line.
“They never paid for the main to meet city standards, so the city won’t go in and fix it for them for free,” he said.
Rick Tuomi, who has lived on 85th Avenue for 16 years, said the street is served by a 2-inch diameter pipe.
Shaffer said the city would have required a minimum diameter of 6 inches for such a water line.
Initially, the line served only a handful of houses, but it was extended over time. Ed Joyal, who has lived on 85th for 60 years, said he previously drew water from a private well and was one of the last residents to hook into the water pipe.
Shaffer acknowledged the affected residents on 85th Avenue West face “a tough situation,” but he advised against continued “Band-Aid” repairs of the failing pipe.
“My advice to them would be to bite the bullet and go on to replace the line or it will just continue to break. If it is going to have to be replaced, anyhow, the money you continue to pay for repairs will just be wasted,” Shaffer said.
If a majority of residents now served by the water line petition the city for an improvement, Shaffer said the city would replace the failing water main with an appropriately sized pipe and would assume future responsibility for its maintenance.
Shaffer laid out that option a few years ago at a neighborhood meeting.
But most residents balked at the estimated $151,000 cost of the project. To cushion the blow, Shaffer said the city could spread out payment for the pipe over 15 years, via annual tax assessments. Shaffer said the neighbors also could hire a private contractor if they so choose, as long as the work is inspected and verified to meet city specifications.
While Peterson and Ogren support having the pipe replaced, other neighbors aren’t sold on the idea.
Tuomi contends the city should help shoulder the cost of the project.
“They allowed for the connection, so I think some of the onus should be on the city,” he said.
Tuomi pointed out that he and most current residents served by the failing line had no hand in its installation.
“We all pay the full water rates for service and maintenance,” he said. “So I had no clue that I was on a private line until we had our first break.”
Joyal, 82, said the assessment could prove a hardship for people like him who live on Social Security.
“It could take more than a lifetime to pay it back,” he said.
Tuomi wondered aloud if it might not force some people out of their homes.
Shaffer hopes others will learn from the current hardship on 85th Avenue West.
While the city no longer allows for substandard pipes to be installed in public right-of-ways, he said there are a number of older homes in the city still hooked into inadequate shared private water and sewer lines from the past.
“That’s why we encourage people to come in and check with city engineering before buying a home to confirm it’s on public water and sewer, rather than a shared private line,” Shaffer said.
Lisa Krajewski, who bought a house at the corner of 85th Avenue and Vinland Street in April, said she believes the fact that the home was on a shared private water line with a history of problems should have been disclosed.
“I feel like I’ve been misled,” she said.
Sarah Wisdorf, president of the Duluth Area Association of Realtors, said that a seller who knows of past water issues would be expected to make note of them in disclosure documents, but that hardly ensures that buyers will be informed if he or she was on a private shared line. She explained that sellers are required to disclose pre-existing problems only “to the best of their knowledge.”
“Unfortunately, if there has been no issue, people don’t always know,” Wisdorf said.
She considers it a wise idea for prospective homebuyers to follow Shaffer’s suggestion that they check with the city before signing the dotted line.
“As agents, we always advocate for buyers to get as much information about a property as they can beforehand,” Wisdorf said. “We don’t ever want people to be surprised.”