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Sewer debate raises key questions

by: Vern Uyetake, Rivergrove landowner Lance Coffel, left, partnered with Carl Redman of Innovation Construction, Inc., to turn the former Rivers Edge Athletic Club into homes. The project turned out to be a case study in sewer policies in Rivergrove.

A disagreement over who will supply infrastructure to a 6-acre development in Rivergrove has turned out to be a case study in Lake Oswego policy, one that's changing the city's style of asking developers to provide sewer systems.

The debate, begun in April, stalled approval of four homes in a 10-house development planned along the Tualatin River and raised critical questions about how much responsibility developers have to improve Lake Oswego's inadequate sewer system.

At issue in Rivergrove, where Lake Oswego provides sewers by Metro mandate, is whether developers there should be allowed to connect low-lying homes to sewers using grinder pumps - a pump that forces waste from a single home to regular gravity lines - in places where the city had yet to construct pump stations.

Earlier this year city officials told Lance Coffel, owner of the River's Edge development, that grinder pumps were not allowed and asked him to build a $500,000 pump station to serve his four homes. Other Rivergrove residents would ultimately connect to the facility.

At a time when Lake Oswego faced stiff criticism over its strained sewer system, Coffel said he was being pushed to build a municipal facility that would pipe sewage from dozens of homes in the Rivergrove area to sewer lines along Childs Road.

City officials retracted that request at a June 20 council meeting, saying developers shouldn't be prevented from building on available land, even if the city isn't ready for them.

Pointing to a staff memo, City Councilor John Turchi said Lake Oswego can allow grinder pumps by requiring developers to avoid conflicts with eventual city facilities and to connect to those systems later.

'If we can solve that problem, then we just don't have a problem,' Turchi said.

The decision is significant because it forces the city of Lake Oswego to address the lack of sewage facilities in Rivergrove, which the city is required to serve.

About 21 acres of undeveloped land along the Tualatin River there could eventually develop into as many as 40 homes. Dozens of homes west of Rivergrove Elementary School also are not connected to sewers and also need facilities. Though a need for a pump station there has been on the city's master plan for sewers since 1987, there has never been a plan to build one. Though the 19-year-old master plan called for construction of a Rivergrove facility by 1992, it hasn't been updated since.

City Engineer Joel Komarek said the city's plan for sewers is in need of an update but capacity problems in the system's interceptor - a pipe in Oswego Lake that carries about 48 percent of local sewage to a waste facility - dominates staff attention.

He said that adding infill and developments to the system has also added challenges.

'In an ideal world cities would go out and they would do their master plan and then they would build everything,' Komarek said. 'But the way that it is … is that you have your master plan and they talk about where sewers should be built and (cities) don't have the (finances) to build all these sewers and just leave them in the ground for 20 or 30 years just waiting for development.'

He said the city has tried to build facilities when there is a need for them. The city's aim in discouraging the grinder pumps, Komarek said, was to prevent developers from patching infrastructure together in areas where the city wasn't prepared for growth.

Now, city officials are expected to meet with Coffel and agree to temporary plans for use grinder pumps.

'I just feel very good about the outcome,' Coffel said. 'I have the feeling that they're really trying to work with us for a sensible solution.'

Coffel's developer Carl Redman, who has negotiated with the city, has offered to serve on a future committee to examine sewer needs in Rivergrove. Redman said last week he hoped the city council would take a closer look at sewer problems and embrace their responsibility to provide basic services.

'They're all over a community center and building a boat dock on the Willamette River, things that look to me like legacy projects,' Redman said. 'The staff has no money to utilize to take care of these problems.'