By Seth Daniel
It’s uncomfortable to have to collect five or 10 bucks from one’s neighbors to cover gas for the community snowblower or the neighborhood block party, but it’s downright wrong to have to try to hit up neighbors for thousands of dollars to repair or replace the sewer line out back.
Or at least that’s the plea of several private sewer owners in the South End – who share a common problem with several in the Back Bay – and they’re hoping a meeting with the Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC) in February could change the situation citywide.
Private sewers are one of the most frustrating and complex problems for an estimated 20 percent of homeowners in the downtown neighborhoods. They are a vestige from the past, and a condition that many don’t often know about until trouble comes.
“Private and public alleys and sewers usually aren’t even mentioned at a closing or when a real estate agent is showing you a house,” said Nicola Truppin at the South End Forum Meeting on Tuesday. “Most people don’t even know.”
Said Moderator Steve Fox, “When they or their neighbor is having the sewer backing up into their basement or ground floor, that’s usually when they find out the surprise.”
Private sewers run in tandem with private alleys, and many homeowners aren’t aware of what all that means until it’s too late. For the purpose of sewers, it means that all of the neighbors hooked into the sewer on the private alley have to form a consortium to maintain, repair and pay for the sewer line – which does eventually feed into the BWSC system. That, unfortunately, can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and often it just leads to a situation where neighbors simply ignore the problem due to the exorbitant costs.
The South End Forum, led by Etta Rosen of the Pilot Block Neighborhood Association, has been trying to intercede for these private sewer property owners with the BWSC, and to date they have had one semi-productive meeting with the Commission. Multiple meetings have been canceled since then, but another meeting for 30 minutes with staff has been scheduled, and private sewer owners hope they can convince the BWSC to take them into the capital plan – something the BWSC has balked at doing for decades to this point.
“This situation with private sewers forces neighbors to form quasi-governmental agencies and try to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars from one another,” said Fox. “That’s not chump change…Our argument is to say, ‘Wait a minute. Both public and private sewers are part of the City’s sewer system…We all pay the same amount in rates. Why does one pay and the other get a pass? Those of us who have private sewers are only subsidizing the rest of the repairs to public sewers in town…We need to get into the capital pipeline. This is not equitable or easy.”
Rosen said she has done an inventory of all of the private and public sewers using the old BWSC maps. The BWSC has said it doesn’t even know how many private sewers are out there now, but Rosen has pieced it together. She estimates there are about 30 in the South End, with many of them being inaccessible on footpaths – mostly in the Eight Streets neighborhood. Most others, she said, are in alleys.
On her street, she found that one-third of the sewer line is public and two-thirds of it is private – creating an unbelievably complex situation as public and private sewage runs through the same pipe.
Carol Blair of the Chester Square Area Neighborhood Association (CSANA) said what has happened in Chester Square is that the private sewers simply aren’t maintained. She said the old brick archway sewers that are open to rodents, that move by gravity and that are unsanitary by today’s standards persevere because they are too expensive for neighbors to fix.
“What you see there is that it is ignored and becomes a public health problem,” she said. “This is the 21st Century and we should not have these conditions.”