Sewer system costs worry residents

Residents seemed to hold mixed views on a county project to bring sewer lines to the Lono Kona subdivision. But even those in support of the plan at a public hearing Tuesday night in Kailua-Kona worried about how the system would impact their wallets.

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Residents seemed to hold mixed views on a county project to bring sewer lines to the Lono Kona subdivision. But even those in support of the plan at a public hearing Tuesday night in Kailua-Kona worried about how the system would impact their wallets.

Tuesday was the last day to postmark testimony from the property owners who will ultimately be paying for the work. It is likely but yet not known for certain if there is enough support for the plan.

Caroline Smith, a 46-year resident of the subdivision, said her cesspool has been working fine and questioned the necessity of the project.

“I am retired. How am I going to pay for this?” she asked.

The owners of only 16.5 units protested the plan at a March hearing, nowhere close to the half of affected owners needed to put the project off for another six months. Many of the condominiums, duplexes and apartments in the subdivision are hooked up to large-capacity cesspools. Some property owners requested that the district be formed because they didn’t have room to install a septic system.

The $6.5 million project is funded by a $4 million grant and $2.4 million in loaned money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The county will bill $9,090 for each single family equivalent unit, payable in $498 increments each year.

The project area contains 145 assessment units in the subdivision mauka of Kuakini Highway and Kailua Bay. The design and bid process is expected to take at least a year.

Residents questioned whether the cost will be the same when the digging is done.

“This is a good thing. If we had to put septic systems in there, it would never happen,” said Robert Hamilton. But he concluded his comments by asking: “Is this what we’re going to pay? Is this a firm estimate?”

The district brings sewer lines to the property’s edge, but owners must also foot the bill for the lines needed on their own property to hook up to the system, plus the cost of closing the cesspools.

Those expenses should be included in the project cost and bond sale, said Ray Anders, who estimated work on private property would hike the individual bill about $10,000.

“Those costs are going to come out of the owners’ pockets,” said Anders, who suggested the project be tabled and reworked.

But Hawaii County Treasurer Mike Okumoto said county rules prevent it from spending money on private property. Staff examined alternatives, including acquiring easements onto property, but those proved unworkable, he said.

Curtis Tyler pointed out that the area has numerous caves, some of which are known to contain burials.

“This is a good project, it needs to be done, but the county needs to give more information,” said Tyler. “These aren’t fancy condos. For a lot of people, this is all they have.”

Okumoto said the vacant land will be assessed based on the number of units for which it is zoned. Property owner Jose Jazmin took issue with that.

“Why bill me for an 18-unit building when I don’t know yet?” Jazmin asked. “I may build a single family home there. Why hit me for the biggest charge?

“We have a lot of people here who are financially strapped. We have to be more creative here.”

Okumoto said the county is trying to be fair but cannot address every individual situation.

“We’re just trying to apply the rules in an even manner,” he said.

Okumoto said a similar project in Honokaa had property owners concerned about lava tubes and cost overruns but the work was not as difficult as many property owners had feared.

Environmental Management Director Bobby Jean Leithead Todd said if the costs come in higher than estimated, another public hearing will have to be held. But she cautioned that the process has a timeline.

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“If we don’t get the project out to bid, you could lose your interest rate,” she said. “There is a timeline when we have to act on the loan. We have to move forward and try to get this off the ground.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned large-capacity cesspools in 1999 and mandated their closure by 2005. One property owner in the subdivision has been fined $60,000 by the EPA for failing to convert from the outdated system, and several received violation notices.

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