I recently met Barbara Glaspell of Cortland. She is a sweet grandmotherly lady, but in the eyes of the law, she is a criminal. She has committed the heinous crime of failing to connect to a private sewer extension as required by law.
You may remember her story that was in the Tribune Chronicle a few months ago.
In September 2011, Ms. Glaspell was notified that her neighbor had installed a sewer line within 200 feet of her house. She was now required by law to connect into that line and pay more than $16,000 to do so.
Ms. Glaspell is unable to afford that cost, and so is at risk of being charged with a misdemeanor for failing to tie in. This, in spite of the fact that, according to Ms. Glaspell, she has a functioning septic system.
How did this happen?
First, we need to understand that under Ohio Revised Code 307.73, individuals or organizations can construct private sewer lines with permission of the county commissioners via a resolution. The county commissioners are then authorized to collect a prorated share of the costs from residents who were not participants in the original improvements.
It is important to note that this law is from 1972, prior to later laws that require residents within 200 feet of a sewer system to tie in. And it was written with the intent of allowing residents who chose to make those improvements to recoup their investment from those who later chose to tap into the sewer system. All participants in these transactions had a choice whether or not to participate.
When a municipality or a county creates a system, there is a process outlined in the Ohio Revised Code 6117 which allows for hearings, bids, etc. and grants due process to all of those affected. As I mentioned, later legislation began to require citizens to tie into sewer systems once they are accessible.
Ohio Administrative Code 3701-29-02 requires that where a sanitary sewer is accessible, a homeowner must tie into that sewer system. Under ORC 6117.51, homeowners could be required to tie in unless the foundations of their dwellings were more than 200 feet from the sewer line.
This 200-foot threshold has become the definition of accessible for health departments. Additionally, an Ohio Supreme Court ruling in DeMoise versus Dowell from 1984 allowed health departments to require homeowners to tie into sanitary sewers.
The Trumbull County Health Department website and health commissioner James Enyeart both cite these laws as justification for their actions in cases like Ms. Glaspell's. Sometimes, though, things that are legal are still wrong, and there is quite a bit wrong with this situation and others like it.
First, because the sewer line in this case was done privately and not publicly, there was no due process for Ms. Glaspell. She just woke up one day and was told she owed almost $17,000 for something she hadn't asked for and had never been given notice of. She was not given an opportunity to take part in bidding that could have lowered the cost. No public hearings were held.
This is just wrong.
Laws and rules should have a purpose. Ostensibly, the purpose of these rules is to protect our health. I don't want raw sewage in my drinking water. No one does, but the thing is, Ms. Glaspell's septic system works. She is not dumping sewage into the ditches and contaminating people's drinking water.
The remedy for this situation that has been suggested by State Rep. Sean O'Brien, D-Brookfield, is low-interest loans for homeowners who are forced to tie into sanitary sewers. The real solution is not to throw money at this problem, but to change the laws and rules governing this issue so that they actually serve the intended purpose.
People whose septic systems are working should not be forced to tie in to private sewer lines where they have no say in the costs. A usually law-abiding grandmother should not have to worry that she will be charged with a crime just because she doesn't have the money to buy something she doesn't need or want.
Yoder is a West Farmington resident. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org