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Couple’s septic fix options just stink

About two years ago, the Allen County Board of Health sat down with various county officials looking for an answer to a problem that potentially plagues thousands of homeowners in the county.

What do you do when a homeowner’s septic system fails and they can’t afford to fix it? Do you condemn the property and force people out of their homes?

The county has about 15,000 homes with septic systems, and there are about 5,000 homes that don’t have permits for their systems, so the problem is potentially huge.

So the health department came up with an idea.

The state has a revolving fund that communities can borrow from to build sewers. What if homeowners who had no access to sewer lines could borrow from that fund to fix failing septic systems?

The pilot program is unique to Allen County. Fifteen homeowners were approved for the program, and local officials hope to close on a loan from the state revolving fund soon. It has the potential to literally save some people’s homes.

But one homeowner who hoped to be rescued by the program has been left out in the cold.

Carol Witt and her husband, Jeff, bought their home on Union Chapel Road about seven years ago. Their intent was to live there for the rest of their lives.

Not long ago, though, someone built a house next to them, and during the construction process some tiles leading from the Witts’ septic system, built in the 1970s, were torn up.

That resulted in the Witts’ septic system failing. And this year they got an order from the health department to abate or repair the system. Since you can’t have a septic system that drains onto another property, the Witts have to install a new septic system that would cost $20,000.

It couldn’t have come at a worse time. During the recession, Witt and her husband both lost their jobs. They were out of work for extended periods and even had to sell one of their cars to stay afloat.

The two are back to work now, but they don’t have the money to put in a new septic system.

The program through the State Revolving Fund seemed to be an ideal solution.

Last month, though, the Witts got some disturbingly bad news. After paying for soil tests and, as Carol Witt put it, spending a lot of money they didn’t have, they were told they didn’t qualify for the program.

The reason?

They are technically part of the Leo-Cedarville sewer district, so the state wouldn’t allow them to be part of the pilot program.

Oh, there are alternatives. They could hook up to the Leo-Cedarville sewer system, but Leo-Cedarville won’t let them. Besides, health department officials said, the nearest sewer is 1,500 feet away.

The Allen County Regional Water and Sewer District could conceivably offer the Witts sewer service, but since the Witts are already in a separate sewer district, they can’t.

Tom Fox of the Allen County Sewer District said he suggested Leo-Cedarville turn over the Witts’ property to the county district, but they won’t do that.

So the Witts are in a corner, refused service by the sewer district where they live, unable to turn to a different district for rescue and declared ineligible for a pilot program designed specifically for people like them.

Meanwhile, last March, the county, realizing the breadth of the potential problem with septic systems, introduced a requirement that people selling homes specifically tell potential buyers they are on a septic system. Buyers are advised to check whether the system is permitted and have it checked.

But that’s too late for the Witts.

“We’re going to have to walk away from our house. It’s devastating,” Carol Witt said. “We’re both back to work, but no one has $20,000. … Merry Christmas to me. We’re going to be on the street.”

Meanwhile, Witt said, some of her neighbors who have septic systems just like hers are nervous, afraid the same thing could happen to them.

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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