Good day MAR members!
Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanza, Happy Solstice, and Merry Festivus!
And welcome to the Tuesday, late-edition version of the Monday Memo. We have some new, late-arriving info about the Ross Valley Sanitary District and their “pressure test”, and I also thought you might be a little light on holiday reading material…so here you go…
I feel downright Merry, and it has little to do with the fact that this is my penultimate Monday Memo…#51!
As I write this memo this [yesterday] morning, an old friend is shining down on me at my desk! Where have you been, dear old sun?? It feels like I’ve not seen you since it was 70 degrees on Thanksgiving day. This must be how it feels when the sun comes out in Seattle. They kept teasing us with predictions of the sun this past weekend, but mostly it was teases. This feels for real. I think the word that sums it up best for me is, “Ahhhhhhhhhh”.
I admit it, I’m a SoCal guy. I’m not ideally wired for this. I love my mid-winter sun. The drought, weather-wise, was pretty darn nice for me. As I always say, “If it’s gonna be a drought, you might as well enjoy the weather.” Checking in with MMWD this [yesterday] morning, it appears that we are just a hair under 200% of rainfall for this point in the season. The reservoirs are at 99.95% of capacity. By the time you read this, they will quite possibly be at a full 100%.
A couple of days of sun and whatever hillsides are not yet electric green should be there. Life is good!
ROSS VALLEY SANITARY POINT OF SALE UPDATE
Another round on this one, with new info as late as Monday afternoon…and sorry it’s a long memo this week, but lots to report here on the home stretch. Longest memo ever, I’m embarrassed to say. Your reward will be an unofficial and convoluted step-by-step process at the end of this. Happy holidays.
Last Wednesday night, another rainy night in Marin, was the final Ross Valley Sanitary District Board of Directors meeting of the year. The sewer lateral ordinance was on the agenda, with notice, for the first time since it was passed back in July. I went to a board meeting in October and pleaded with the board to put the matter on the agenda, and blessedly they finally did so two months later…two weeks before the ordinance is to go into effect.
So, on that rainy Wednesday night, while many of you were cozy in your home or out doing some holiday shopping, the fearless MAR trio of myself, CEO Andy Fegley and Treasurer Arun Burrell braved the elements and treated ourselves to a joyous holiday visit at the Central Marin Police Station with our friends from Ross Valley Sanitary. The lone sewer-lateral subject on the agenda was to remove the requirement for the infamous and wasteful “pressure test” from the beginning of the point-of-sale proposed timeline, and instead move it to the end.
The day before the meeting, one of the top agents in the county called me, with the subject being “theory is now meeting reality.” Her assistant called me several days before, asking about the status of the ordinance, and I suggested that they follow the rough outline of it for an upcoming Ross Valley listing. So, with Amesos Plumbing and the seller onsite, they settled in for the point-of-sale process.
The camera went down, and according to the agent, the line didn’t look too bad. The old advice would have been “keep an eye on it”, the same advice with many systems on a not-new house. The plumber said in the old world, or under the Sausalito or Belvedere point-of-sale ordinance, this line would pass. The plumber then told the homeowner that to be compliant, she would need to do a $700 pressure test. And that she would not pass the pressure test. This top agent asked the Amesos plumber how many RVSD-compliant pressure tests he has done? Twelve the plumber answered. How many of those twelve passed the pressure test? None.
Plumbers have been telling me this for the last six months, that none of the laterals would pass the RVSD pressure test. The net of the pressure test is that your Ross Valley sewer line will need to perform in a pressure test just like it did when it was brand new. Again, the pressure test that any lateral greater than 20 years old will need to pass is the same pressure test a brand new lateral needs to pass at the end of the installation permit. Yes, that’s right, your Ross Valley homeowner will need to pass an “as-new” pressure test, or it will need to be repaired or replaced.
So that’s the message our team took to the RVSD Board Meeting last week: I told them that they didn’t pass a point-of-sale ordinance, they passed a mandatory replacement ordinance if your lateral is more than 20 years old. I’m going to say this several times more, just so it will sink in with everyone. I’ve come to realize that the infamous “pressure test” will not be needed most of the time…a complete waste of money. Rather than going to the “pressure test” stage, everyone is just going to have to replace their lateral if it’s more than 20 years old.
But wait, there’s more!
Several weeks ago, MAR received the RVSD draft Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ). There were a half-dozen or so questions and answers.
Hidden in the FAQ, and nowhere in the ordinance, is the RVSD requirement that if you share a sewer lateral with a neighbor or neighbors, you will need to disconnect from the shared lateral and run a new line to the sewer main. This is onerous enough, but I asked about shared laterals that go across a neighboring property, with no recorded easement. Perhaps the property was built in 1915, before there were such things as recorded easements? You’re telling me that if the shared line goes across my neighbor’s yard, and under his pool deck, or under his beloved oak tree, and there is no recorded easement, that I have to get the neighbor to grant me permission to dig up his yard, or jackhammer out his pool deck, or cut down his oak tree? What if he says no? I can’t sell my house? I have to hire a lawyer and sue my neighbor? To replace a working albeit shared lateral?
I met with one of the board members before the meeting at his house and shared this story. I also shared that this board member, who has a 25-year-old sewer lateral, will most likely have to replace it when he sells his house. I told him that this ordinance was not just a mandatory inspection, it’s basically a mandatory replacement ordinance. He didn’t disagree.
Yesterday afternoon, MAR CEO Andy Fegley and I met with Greg Norby, the General Manager of RVSD and his staff to go through the latest draft of the still-incomplete FAQ. We again discussed the shared lateral business. They got very quiet, and everyone in the room agreed that it’s a very tough and onerous requirement. They told us that these get ugly at times during the remodel process, which already triggers this requirement. We all agreed that there will be some terrible, horrible, expensive outlier situations. But it’s not going away.
The scenario above with the shared lateral is admittedly an outlier, but it most definitely will come up. Um, excuse me, it’s already come up. Last Thursday, another top agent called me about a Ross Valley property he has in escrow. The sewer line leaves the house, and connects with a neighbor’s lateral before crossing under the street below, and then continues down the hill across two properties below…with no easement across those properties. So now, to make this shared lateral compliant, permission to dig up two neighboring yards needs to be granted. With no easements. This is a many-tens-of-thousands-of-dollars problem.
RVSD told this agent, well don’t worry about it, there’s nothing the other homeowners can do to stop you. What about the lack of an easement, or easements, and what if they don’t cooperate? Well, it will be a “crap shoot” this agent was told at the RVSD desk. That’s nice advice on their new ordinance, isn’t it?
I brought up this scenario to the RVSD board, and there was a collective shrug, and one of the board members reminded me that he shares a private driveway with six other homes, and every twenty years everyone gets together and pays to repave the driveway…”So you’ll just have to work it out with your neighbor.” Forget about the fact that there is a California Civil Code for shared driveways that says in the absence of a maintenance agreement that everyone will share in the cost.
At the end of six very trying months leading MAR in its fight against this ordinance, there is one thing I’ve come to realize, and it’s the cold hard facts (saying it again):
IF YOU ARE GOING TO SELL YOUR HOUSE IN ROSS VALLEY GOING FORWARD, AND YOUR HOME OR SEWER LATERAL IS MORE THAN 20 YEARS OLD, YOU’RE ALMOST CERTAINLY GOING TO HAVE TO REPAIR OR REPLACE YOUR SEWER LATERAL.
Prepare your clients. I asked the district’s chief engineer in the meeting yesterday if he could think of any sewer laterals 20 years or older that would pass a “pressure test”, he paused for a long while, thought out loud, and basically pointed to a few lateral systems from the late 1980s and 1990s that would pass. A few. And I’m confident that there are occasional cast iron systems that are older which will pass.
I asked if there are any terra cotta pipe installations that will pass, and the whole room erupted with a quiet and confident…”NO”
So when we were discussing the FAQ, the RVSD staff conceded that they need to put together a quick FAQ card for the front desk, but it’s so complex that getting it all on there was difficult. I told them, no, it’s quite simple: a 3×5 card that reads: “If you are selling your house in Ross Valley, and your sewer lateral or house is more than 20 years old, you’ve got to replace the pipe.” (3rd time)
Back to the meeting, I asked them for two things: What is the process for inspection, and when will this be on your website.
Honestly, they hadn’t thought about the website. My calls from members usually start with, “Hi Blaine, I went to the RVSD website, but there is nothing there about the ordinance, so can you tell me how it works?” RVSD claims it’s there…but not in one place…and you basically have to do a forensic archeology experiment on the website to find it. I encouraged them to get something up pronto.
And they don’t have a finished process or flowchart of how REALTORS and homeowners are supposed to proceed. I went around the room, and no one could tell me exactly what a homeowner or REALTOR is supposed to do.
So I’m gonna paraphrase it…I’m making this up because they won’t, it’s subject to review and very possibly incorrect, since RVSD doesn’t have the process set up on their ordinance that goes into effect next Thursday.
Anyway, here is the rough outline of the RVSD process starting on January 1:
Call RVSD and ask them about the property, what they have on record, and most importantly what they know about the material in the lateral itself. As they said, if you’re told it’s terra cotta or a shared lateral, save your client’s money on an inspection, it’s not going to pass, start a replacement plan.
If the property is less than 20 years old, or if there is a record of a permitted replacement of the lateral in the last 20 years, you are deemed compliant. Congratulations.
If 3 above doesn’t apply, you should call a plumber and do a video inspection, no need for RVSD to be there. Actually, RVSD doesn’t want to come out for all these inspections. They know most will fail.
If the line is obviously shot or not going to pass a pressure test, and there is money in the RVSD grant program, arrange for a second visit with one of RVSD’s approved inspectors and with RVSD present and allow them to view the line with you. See the RVSD Grant Program info on their website, click here. There will be an inspection fee with RVSD and of course with your plumber.
Apply for the grant if there is money. The seller can apply for the grant and if approved the buyer can get the money and use toward the repair.
If there is no money in the grant program, there is a good chance that they will have a low-interest loan program set up in the coming months. More on that later.
If the lateral “looks good”, you’re not done. You then need to do a pressure test to make sure it’s “good as new”. The cost for the pressure test is in the $700-$1000 range…probably more if it’s complicated.
Almost certainly [after Monday’s meeting, I edited that from “most likely”], you won’t pass the pressure test, and you’ll have to repair or replace the line and get anotherpressure test at the end of replacement.
The repair does not need to be completed before COE. Both seller and buyer will sign an RVSD document promising that it will get replaced within 60 days of COE. RVSD doesn’t care who pays for that.
I think that’s how it goes.
The upshot of all of this is that, again, it’s not really a point-of-sale inspection, it’s a mandatory replacement ordinance (4th time). I said that over and over to the board. Director Mary Sylla, who MAR endorsed several years ago, told us that, “well, maybe we do have to replace every lateral that’s more than 20 years old if that’s what it takes.” So that’s how they’re thinking.
MAR members, there is the requirement for a “test” in the language of the Cease and Desist order that RVSD is operating under because of all their spills. But not a “pressure test”. We’ve been told that the industry standard for “test” is a “pressure test”…though the only other municipality in the Bay Area to require a “pressure test” is the East Bay Municipal Utilities District…whose whole district lies on one side or the other of the constantly moving Hayward Fault.
When I was meeting with the board member in his house a couple of weeks ago, he basically admitted that none of the directors had read the ordinance before they passed it. And he confirmed that to me in another email this past weekend. He also said that before last Wednesday’s meeting, he didn’t think that any of the directors knew what a pressure test was. And that’s in spite of the 1500 emails MAR members sent to the board.
Ultimately, the board voted unanimously on Wednesday night to change the language of when the pressure test is required, but left the rest of the ordinance intact.
I’m looking forward to seeing their revised FAQ, and I’ll forward it to you when I get it.
But I’m afraid that in Ross Valley, if you’re going to sell your house, your seller or your buyer will be replacing the sewer line unless it’s less than 20 years old (5th time lucky). That’s the key takeaway for everyone.
That’s all for now.
With that, I wish you and your family a wonderful and safe holiday season. Be careful out there, and enjoy the sun while it lasts!
2015 MAR President