Working Group to Examine Public and Private Sewer Lines in the City of Boston

Across some of the neighborhoods in Boston, private alleys that abut commercial and residential properties have sewer lines and infrastructure with some dating back to the mid-1800s. When needed maintenance is required, the cost of repairs is put on the owners who have to pool the money together from the abutting neighbors, and not the Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC).

The high costs have delayed many owners from making much-needed repairs, creating quality-of-life problems and creating unsafe health conditions.

In an effort to help streamline the process and alleviate the maintenance burdens on property owners abutting private alleys with private sewers, the Boston City Council called for a working group to address these concerns at their hearing on Wednesday, March 14.

“Many South End residents are living in private alleyways and have to pay for the upkeep and cost of fixing sewer lines,” said Councilor Ed Flynn. “They have to go door-to-door to their neighbors to pool funds that rank in the tens of thousands of dollars. It is a financial hardship and it causes a lot of confusion and contention.”

Many alleys were designated as either private or public as early as the 1850s, and property owners abutting private alleys are often unaware of the ownership status of the alleys, as well as their upkeep responsibilities.

The conditions of many private alleys have deteriorated over the years, where repaving is often required to fix existing potholes and cracked surfaces.

In addition, the sewer lines beneath them are designated as private property, and the costs of maintenance and repair for private alleys and sewer lines can be expensive and unaffordable for property owners.

The BWSC oversees the City’s public water infrastructure, and has an agency policy called the Betterment Program whereby residents abutting private sewers can petition for their sewer lines to be accepted into the public system through a cost-sharing arrangement.

But, the eligibility requirements for the BWSC Betterment Program do not match the situation of many of the sewer lines underneath alleys historically designated as private ways, making it impossible for residents to arrange for public management of their water infrastructure.

“One particular matter in the South End I’ve been working on for over five years now,” said At-large City Councilor Michelle Wu. “Water infrastructure is fundamental to quality of life and health. When the sewer is not taken care of by BWSC, it’s on the owners to fix it, and that’s an incredible stressor.”

She added that the requirements to get into the BWSC Betterment Program means the owners have split the cost of repair and maintenance for up to 20 years with the BWSC.

“We are so close in getting into the program for this one alley but I know so much more that needs to get fixed,” said Wu.

Councilor Matt O’Malley added that in his district in West Roxbury, it holds one of the remaining neighborhoods that have septic systems. He would like to talk with BWSC about how to better improve that aging infrastructure as well.

The matter was filed with the Committee of Neighborhood Services and Veteran Affairs. A working group session has not been scheduled yet.

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