Tangle over tie-ins

Every time the telephone rings at the home of Barbara Glaspell, a visible spell of anxiety overcomes her as she awaits the inevitable.

“I’m always afraid they are going to call me at any moment and tell me that a court date has been set,” the 72-year-old said recently from her Howland home. “I know it is a bitter pill that I’m eventually going to have to swallow.”

Notified recently by the Trumbull County Health Department that she had to pay $16,735 to tie into a neighbor’s private sewer line and unable to raise the money, Glaspell is expecting to be charged with violating the county health code. Her 30-day notice expired in mid-February.

Her problems began in September 2011 when her neighbor installed a private sewer line in order to sell his home. Glaspell, who had no prior knowledge of the private line, was ordered to connect and abandon her septic system. She said her current septic unit was recently deemed up to code.

Under Ohio law, if there is a sewer within 200 feet of a property that uses septic, the property owner is required to tie in, regardless of whether their septic system is functioning.

In 1984, an Ohio Supreme Court ruling gave boards of health the authority to require a homeowner to tie in. The portion directing residents within 200 feet to tie in was added later, according to Warren attorney Frank Bodor.

“Before … the public had an option,” Bodor said. “Now, when the Supreme Court steps in, they are saying you must tie in. In turn, people are stuck with a contract that was entered into between the owner, a contractor and the county commissioners, and they have nothing to say to object to how this cost was even prepared. … They have no say in the purchase.”

For months, Glaspell has attended meetings with local agencies in an effort to meet the standards set by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the health department, but efforts to remedy the issue have failed. Now, she expects to be charged with a misdemeanor health code violation and fine.

“I know it’s coming. I just hope the judge will be gracious to me,” Glaspell said. “The one good thing is I feel I have people fighting for me now.”

Attorney David Engler is representing Glaspell.

“What stuck out to me was the clear unfairness of the situation to the citizen,” Engler said. “Plus, I’ve had involvement with the Trumbull County Health Department before and I know they can be heavy-handed in their approach.”

Health Commissioner Dr. James J. Enyeart maintains the Health Department is only enforcing existing laws, not writing them. He said there have been efforts to help those without proper funding to meet the expectations of the law.

“With the tie-in issue, we think the revolving loan would be a good step,” Enyeart said of recent talks involving a proposal which would enable the county to loan private citizens funding to tie in. A meeting on the topic was held this month between the health department, state Rep. Sean O’Brien and officials from the county Auditor’s Office and Sanitary Engineer’s Office and the Ohio EPA.

Both Enyeart and Sanitary Engineer Rex Fee noted the loan is in preliminary phases and no specific guidelines have been set. The potential revolving loan would be zero-percent interest for up to 10 years, according to officials. O’Brien, D-Brookfield, said he hopes to have the funding in place by July.

“We want people to be able to meet their obligations,” Enyeart said.

Glaspell, who is employed part-time, tried in January to obtain a low-interest loan at a local savings and loan but was denied.

“I’m told that I’m not alone and other people are going through this kind of thing,” Glaspell said. “That’s not much consolation to me personally.”

One such person who has gone though this kind of thing is Steve Tackett of Bazetta.

Like Glaspell, Tackett was contacted by the Trumbull County Health Department in 2009 that a neighbor put in a private sewer line and he was obligated to tie in.

“I had no idea he was even putting it in,” Tackett said Thursday. “Obviously I was upset, angry and felt like, how can this happen?”

Unlike Glaspell, Tackett’s septic system was deemed a public health nuisance. As such, by law he was required to abandon his system and tie in, at a cost of $18,000. Tackett said he was astonished by the bill.

Unable to afford the connection, Tackett, 60, was charged with a violation of the public health code and ordered to pay a fine. For the past three years, he and his attorney, Bodor, argued in court the unconstitutionality of the Ohio law.

“Laws are mutable,” Tackett said. “They can be changed, eliminated or ignored. Principle is immutable. It is made by God. If the laws are wrong, make them right. I kept reminding them that their criminal charge against me is refusing to follow the rules.”

Finally, in December 2012, Tackett was given the option of pleading no contest, ordered to pay court costs, which were less than $100, and the health department would waive the fine. However, he says the years of attorneys’ fees totaled just less than $5,000. In early February, Tackett sold his house on Bazetta Road hoping to stay afloat financially.

“Basically, I think they were tired of me,” Tackett said. “Financially, I had no choice but to take it. But on principle, I hated doing that, because I’m innocent. Now I have a record.”

Tackett, who is self-employed, said the man who bought his house is allowing him to stay at a reduced rent.

“If I get to the point where I’m doing better financially, he has said that he could sell the house back to me,” Tackett said.

Tackett’s case serves as a cautionary tale for Glaspell.

“If I had to give her advice, I’d say wait them out,” Tackett said of Glaspell. “I don’t know what her financial situation is, but you’ll go through pre-trial hearings and if nothing is resolved there, they will set another date.”

Meanwhile, Glaspell and Engler continue to wait for the call from the Health Department.

“This could be changed with the stroke a pen,” Engler said. “It would be very easy to carve out exceptions for people like Mrs. Glaspell. If it is not financially accessible and the current septic system meets the grade, there is no reason to force this person to tie in.”

Enyeart responded that he has no control over the laws and his office will continue to enforce the existing codes.

“That’s all we can do. The sanitary engineers office gives us a list of people who are within the range of an accessible sewer line and we notify those people,” Enyeart said. “If it goes beyond that, then it is the court’s authority to decide.”

Fee said that although it has become a hot-button issue lately, the number of ordered sewer tie-in cases in the last several years does not amount to the numbers he saw in the late-1980s.

“Back then, there were a lot of platted areas with new lines going in. I’d probably have to say there were even more back then,” Fee said.