Council mulls allowing Midway residents to connect to wells

Sean C. Morgan

Should residents of Sweet Home’s Midway area, who were affected by groundwater contamination in the 1990s, be allowed to disconnect from city water and reconnect to their wells?

That was discussed last week by Sweet Home City Council members, who ended up tabling the issue until their next meeting.

The wells had been contaminated by chlorinated solvents, which were used as a degreaser at the site of nearby logging operations. As a result of the contamination, in 1998, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the City of Sweet Home required Midway residents to connect to the city’s water system for drinking water.

A clean-up effort removed contaminated soil at the site, located at the intersection of 44th Avenue and Main Street, last owned by Ridgeway Logging; and the DEQ has continued periodically testing wells in the area.

“I believe every well has come up at safe drinking water level, the ones they tested,” said City Manager Ray Towry.

City Attorney Robert Snyder said “the water has improved in the critical area to a point where some properties may no longer be affected by the contamination.

“And DEQ has drafted the proposed amendment (to the ordinance) that specifically provides a procedure for a property owner who has a well to not be required to be connected to the city water system.”

A resident has requested the ability to disconnect from city water and begin using a well, Towry said.

To allow that, the council would need to amend the ordinance requiring a connection by the Midway residents.

Under the proposed amendment, property owners would need to have their wells tested, and DEQ would need to sign off on the test, Towry said.

In a letter, Donald Hanson of the DEQ Western Region Cleanup and Emergency Response Section, told Snyder that DEQ is supportive of the amendment.

Public Works Director Greg Springman told the council that those properties returning to a well should physically disconnect from the city’s water system to avoid any possibility of well water entering the city’s distribution system.

He told the council that the testing standard for city drinking water is higher than it is for well water.

Councilor Dave Trask said he doesn’t know how the city can stop property owners who want to spend the money to disconnect and use their wells.

“If you own the property and you have a well, you should be able to use it,” said Councilor Lisa Gourley, adding that where there are renters, she wanted to see the well water tested periodically.

“As a renter, I would want to know that is occurring,” Gourley said. “That kind of worries me.”

“Me too,” Trask said.

“I concur about the testing also,” said Councilor Diane Gerson. “There is no guarantee they’ll test the well.”

“It would be new territory for us to get into that business,” Towry said, but he noted that the test is relatively inexpensive, between $50 to $100.

The ordinance also requires property owners to meet DEQ testing standards, he said.

Gerson asked how often.

A well belongs to the property owner, and the property chooses to get a test, Snyder said.

If there is contamination again, Trask asked how a property owner would know.

Snyder replied that the contamination was of man-made origin.

The wells were contaminated, said Councilor James Goble. The city has no way to test them, and if they’re contaminated again, the city will have 20 to 30 people sick from the contaminants.

Snyder said that DEQ is planning to continue periodically testing those wells in the future.

With the source of the contamination, the soil, removed, “each year it keeps getting better and better and better,” Snyder said. The last tests, 18 wells in 2015, were clean.

“Their (DEQ) standards are high,” said Councilor Susan Coleman, and she was OK with it if DEQ approves.

No one would be able to disconnect without DEQ approval, Towry said.

Mayor Greg Mahler said he didn’t have a problem with people using wells, but he has a concern about people switching to a well, back to city water and back to a well. Allowing people to switch back and forth sets a precedent.

Towry said that there is nothing to prevent other property owners throughout the city from drilling their own wells, following the state’s requirements.

Gourley asked if it is fair to deny some property owners the right to do something that anyone else can do.

“DEQ says it’s OK,” Trask said. “I don’t know how we can stop it.”

And if they disconnect and then return, he said, “they’re going to pay.”

Towry said that a mass exodus from the city’s system would cause a loss of revenue, and expenses like debt payments would be spread among fewer people.

That said, he told the council that he isn’t predicting a mass exodus.

Gerson asked whether there is liability to the city in allowing residents to return to their wells.

City staff had that discussion, and that’s why the ordinance revision relies on DEQ approval of tests.

Gerson asked how socially responsible it is to allow the use of the groundwater.

“Whose water is it?” she continued.

Four people use the water, Trask said. They may use all of the water, and the one at the end won’t have any water.

“This is tough for me,” he said.

The council voted 7-0 to table the discussion until its next meeting, 6:30 p.m. on May 12, to allow city staff to gather additional information.

Present at the meeting, which was held in person and through videoconferencing software, were Cortny Nash, Coleman, Gourley, Mahler, Gerson, Goble and Trask.

In other business, the council:

– Reappointed Dave Jurney to the Budget Committee for a three-year term. He has served since 2017.

– Approved minor revisions to the city’s vision statement, mission statement and goals. As part of their approval, the council altered the vision statement to include “community members” in the statement’s economic development plank: “We aspire to create an economically strong environment in which businesses and community members prosper.”

– Approved a resolution updating city fees. Most fees were unchanged. Among new fees, the city is now charging for copies of meeting documents, with an option for annual subscriptions. Digital copies of the documents are available free through the city’s website.

– Held the first reading of revisions to the city’s local improvement district ordinance. Local improvement districts are created by property owners in cooperation with the city to add street improvements, including gutters, curbs, sidewalks and utility lines. More than 50 percent of property owners in the area must approve.

The ordinance was last updated in 1991, Towry told the council.

The city is working with property owners who are considering an LID. With that, city staff proposed changes to the ordinance, primarily revisions in text to match state law and to match terminology with current practices.

The revisions also will increase the income test for deferring repayment of loans to pay for the improvements for senior citizens. Individuals making less than $18,210 annually, up from $6,620, would be eligible for deferral, allowing the debt to be paid upon the sale of the property or death of the owner. For couples, the amount increases from $8,800 to $24,462, with an increase from $400 to $1,100 for each dependent.

The changes is meant to roughly reflect inflation since the ordinance was last updated. Finance Director Brandon Neish said the amount for individuals is two-thirds of federal low-income status. For couples, it is one-half. The information came from a Social Security Administration website.

Towry suggested adding an inflation-based formula to the ordinance to allow the eligibility to change over time. Mahler agreed that a formula should be added.

The council voted 6-1 to move the ordinance to first reading and then held the first reading. Gerson voted no. The ordinance will move to its second reading at the council’s next regular meeting on May 12. Following a third reading, likely on May 26, the council may decide whether to approve the ordinance revision.

– Held the first reading of an ordinance to update the city ordinance covering flood hazard area regulations to comply with minimum National Flood Insurance Program and state standards. A second reading is scheduled for the council’s regular meeting on May 12. Following a third reading, likely on May 26, the council may decide whether to approve the ordinance revision.

– Approved an ordinance updating the city’s ordinance governing special events following a third reading. The city’s ordinance included provisions for issuing park permits but did not regulate large events taking place in public rights-of-way.

The ordinance is intended to more fully protect city infrastructure and property while providing for visitors’ welfare. The revisions include fees and clean-up deposits in some cases for the use of public property.