Chapped in Chapmantown
Hooking up to the city sewer means hooking up with Chico
A process that has stretched over decades—getting as many as 7,000 Chico-area homes off septic tanks—has stirred up controversy in recent months and not a little anger, confusion and distrust in the government process.
Back in 1990 the state’s Water Quality Control Board ordered Butte County to abandon approximately 3,950 septic systems that serve nearly 7,800 dwelling units in the Chico Urban Area, which includes the Chapman-Mulberry neighborhood.
Chico has one of the highest concentrations of septic systems in the state, which has created a nitrates-pollution problem because of too many residences on septic systems spread out over too few acres of land. The soil, which works as part of the filter system for septics, is unable to absorb the discharge and nitrates leach into the groundwater.
The city and county worked together to forge the Nitrate Action Plan, which was adopted in 2002 and called for the abandonment of septic systems and connection to the city sewer. It was estimated at the time that hooking up to the sewer would cost the average homeowner about $9,000.
But grumbling was heard, particularly from those in the Chapman-Mulberry neighborhood, over talk of forced annexation into the city as a requisite for hooking up to the sewer.
In January 2002, the city adopted a policy that stated properties required to hook up to city sewer through the Nitrate Action Plan did not have to be annexed. But in the last few months the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) entered the fray, and that no-need-to-annex policy is no longer so clear.
Jeff Lerche has lived in Chapmantown for 32 years. He bought his first piece of property in 1982 and built a home in 1990. He now owns four lots totaling about an acre in land.
“My major complaint is simply this—that since 1987 or so we knew we had a nitrate problem and we were moving in that direction,” said Lerche, a gruff, white-haired auto mechanic who’s long been employed by the Work Training Center. “There are a lot of small lots there, and we do need the sewer.”
Until LAFCo stepped in, he said, there was no annexation requirement. Many folks in Chapmantown, he says, do not want to be shackled by city ordinances and restrictions.
According to its website, LAFCo “is a state mandated local agency that oversees boundary changes to cities and special districts … The broad goals of the agency are to ensure the orderly formation of local government agencies, to preserve agricultural and open space lands, and to discourage urban sprawl.”
Matt Thompson, senior civil engineer with the city, said originally the city had asked for only an extension of sewer service with no request for annexation.
“[LAFCo] felt that under its policy the sewer contract should still be tied to annexation,” he said. “And that spells out how the whole area will come under the jurisdiction of the city,”
Two of the four sewer projects slated for the area are finished, and the other two will be done soon, Thompson said. Evidence of the work can be seen in the strips of blacktop running down the middle of many of the Chapman streets where the sewer lines have been laid.
Stephen Lucas, LAFCo’s executive officer, said the agency is simply doing what state law requires.
“Our role is to determine if annexation is feasible and desirable and meets certain specifics,” he said. “Our only role so far had been to simply evaluate the city’s determination to extend sewer service to unincorporated parcels. State law requires LAFCo approval outside a jurisdiction if you want city service in one of the county islands.”
For his part, Lerche questions the process.
“I still think it’s kind of chump.[LAFCo] was not in the process a year and a half ago,” he said. “I went to six meetings on this, and they weren’t even there. Now this.”