Rural sewer access

A smelly and potentially dangerous problem with failing septic systems in Jackson County soon could be resolved for up to 1,603 property owners in rural areas who might want to hook up to a regional sewer system.

Jackson County commissioners and local legislators persuaded the Department of Land Conservation and Development to streamline state regulations for sewer connections in rural areas near Talent, Phoenix, Medford, Central Point, Jacksonville and White City that have poor soil and high water tables. Commissioners urged the state to accept a countywide process that would ensure water quality is not contaminated by failing systems in problem areas, particularly those close to streams and rivers.

"We have some of the worst soils in the state of Oregon to put on-site septic systems," said Kelly Madding, director of the county's development services.

The Jackson County Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on allowing sewer hookups in rural areas at 9 a.m. Dec. 10 in the Jackson County Courthouse auditorium, 10 S. Oakdale Ave., Medford. If approved by the county, the new hookup rules could take effect by next spring.

Oregon law, specifically Goal 11 of the statewide planning goals, makes it difficult to provide sewer service outside urban growth boundaries. A property owner outside the boundaries would have to go through a complicated exception process.

Local legislators, led by Reps. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, and Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, crafted legislation that allows the property owners to bypass the exception process. The House bill died because a deal was struck with the DLCD that could make it easier for properties with failing septic systems to hook into the sewer system locally.

The agreement with the state would allow the county to have an exception to statewide planning goals that would cover a large number of properties rather than addressing each parcel individually under the old process.

Residences within a mile of a sewer line could hook up, while commercial or industrial properties would have to be within 300 feet. The hookups are allowed only on properties that already have been developed.

Phoenix resident Marco Hansen said he has been trying to hook into the sewer line that runs near his property and get rid of a septic system that he fears may develop problems.

A sewer line runs up a road that he shares with Rising Sun Farms and then it makes a Y-connection that leads onto his property. Hansen assumed it would be fairly straightforward to make the hookup, but found out that wasn't the case when he went to the county.

"They had us run all over the place and referred us to a guy who said we might as well forget it," he said. "I thought it would be a simple thing, but it wasn't a simple thing."

Hansen said he is continually improving his land and wanted to invest in a connection to the sewer system to improve the property value. He said he hasn't had any problems with the septic system since he purchased the property in 1998.

Commissioner Dave Gilmour said the county has received numerous complaints from residents about septic systems over the years.

On Gibbon Road, off Table Rock Road near Central Point, the soil is hardpan and the water table is high. "There have been reports of flooding in the septic systems," said Gilmour. "It's just a big mess."

The goal is to give these residents the option of hooking up to the sewer system, while not encouraging development in rural areas, he said.

Hookup costs would be borne by the property owner, not Rogue Valley Sewer Services or its customers, Gilmour said. RVS has the capacity to handle the extra customers, Madding said.

While the new rules would allow connections over fairly long distances, Gilmour said most of the properties actually are only 100 to 200 feet from the existing sewer line.

In some cases, the sewer line will run through a property, but the property owner still is not allowed to hook up because of current regulations, Gilmour said.

Gilmour said many of the problem areas have vernal pools, which are at risk of being contaminated by failing septic systems.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail

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