Residents Still Waiting For Meeting with Mayor

The article that follows was published in the Boston Guardian February 7, 2019

by Dan Rabb
South End residents involved in a multiple year dispute with the city over private sewer lines are still waiting for a City Hall meeting promised by the mayor in September.
The conflict stems from disagreement over who should be responsible for cleaning and repairing sewer lines that run under Boston’s many private alleys. While the majority of the city’s sewers are maintained by the Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC), sewers running under private alleys are solely the responsibility of the abutting homeowners. Many of these abutters say this is unfair.
Residents with private alleys argue that the “private” designation is completely arbitrary, an accident of 19th century urban planning. Yet because of that distinction, they do not receive cleaning, inspection, and repair services from the BWSC. Perhaps more alarmingly, they can be saddled with gargantuan repair bills in the event of a sewer break or other major repairs.
“If you have an alley that as an artifact of 19th century decision making has been somehow designated as private, then you have a really serious problem on your hands,” says Steve Fox, the founder of South End Forum and head of a working group that advocates for residents on private sewer lines. “Our view is that those sewer lines, whether they lie below a public or private alley, are part of the central infrastructure of the Boston Water and Sewer Commission.”
For the past two years, the South End Forum working group has pushed the BWSC to incorporate these private sewer lines into the city’s inventory. In other words, residents want the BWSC to provide the same services they would for the majority of the city’s sewers. The BWSC has responded less than enthusiastically, according to the group’s members.
“We met with them many times, and they bring their lawyers and the lawyers do all the talking and the only word the lawyers use is no,” says Etta Rosen, a member of Fox’s working group who is locked in a six-year dispute with the city over repairs to her sewer. “We’ve gotten absolutely nowhere.”
At a South End Forum meeting in September, Mayor Martin Walsh publicly committed to hosting a meeting at City Hall between the South End Forum group and the BWSC. While the mayor said he would not moderate the discussion, he promised to personally introduce the issue and use the weight of his office to push for a resolution. Yet nearly five months later, the promised meeting has yet to be scheduled.
The BWSC did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The mayor’s office says that they are still working on scheduling the meeting, but Steve Fox and other members of the working group expressed skepticism that, if and when the meeting does happen, it will result in meaningful change. According to Fox, the next step is to force the BWSC’s hand legislatively through the city council, where he says four counselors have already expressed their support.
“The current policy is horrible and doesn’t work,” says Fox. “That policy needs to change, and we need these private sewer lines taken into the public inventory.”



Neighborhood meeting 5/30/18

A meeting was held to discuss the engineering report, to share concerns and questions.  About half of the residential units effected by Betterment were represented.  The following questions were generated reflecting the divergent opinions and concerns of the group:

1. We would like to know more about additional costs such as

  • possible interest rate on the balance due if not paid in full initially
  • is there a cost to connecting laterals to the sewer and to the drain? if so, what is the approximate range of cost of each?  Who manages this?  Can the lateral assistance program be applied to both of these for one resident?
  • are there any legal fees charged to the residents such as filing fees for a lien
2. The plan notes that downspouts will be cut if they discharge into the combined sewer.  What happens to those downspouts and the water that runs through them?  Is there a proposed resolution for this part of the plan and at whose expense?
3. Why are residents who already have recharge systems bearing the cost for those who don’t have them, including those who are not part of the Betterment?
4. Why are residents connected to the sewer but not on the alley paying for drainage and restoration?
5. What implications are there for the laterals if there is a change in grade of the sewer?
6. Since the drainage is designed to accommodate W Canton connections why are they not being charged?  Some of them signed the petition.
7. What protection do residents have from cost overruns above the estimate? (as structured the residents are at risk with no control over the management of the project)
8. Will backyards and parking areas have to be dug up to accommodate the new laterals?  If so, who is responsible for the work and the cost of the collateral damage?
9. Why isn’t 100% of the costs of construction, planning and management of the sewer pipe and drain for the BWSC owned section of the sewer being born by BWSC. (as stated they control 23% of the linear feet of the total proposed sewer and are assuming 19% of the construction cost and just 12% of the design and management costs.)
10. What happens if the sewer fails in some way before we resolve all these questions?
11.  How long is the expected construction period?
12.  When does BWSC anticipate starting this work if it is approved by the abutters?
13. Why was the report completed in February and distributed to the abutters at the end of May?
14. We would like the June 20 meeting to be informational without a vote, and/or be postponed to allow time for answering our concerns.  How do we accomplish this?
15. What happens if BWSC in the future assumes responsibility for other private sewers in the City without following the provisions of the current Betterment Policy?  What is our protection against that eventuality?
16. What provisions of the Betterment Policy are actually enshrined in state law as opposed to policy of BWSC?  Please provide specific references.
17. What provisions will be made for temporary waste disposal while the project is ongoing?
18.  Will there be any resident access (pedestrian or vehicular)  to the alley while the construction is in progress?
19. Is the proposed gravel surface compatible with the uses of the alley including heavy trash trucks and snow removal?  The hard packed earth in the alley now can tolerate heavy traffic but the grading of gravel will change with every vehicle that passes over it.  How does a gravel surface qualify as restoration?
20. What is the basis for the decision that rehabilitation of the sewer is not feasible without a thorough inspection?  Other sewers in the City of this age are maintained by BWSC.  Pole camera photos reveal accumulation of waste and debris but not the status of the structure of the sewer.
21. What is the consequence if walls, fences or parking paving turn out to be an obstruction to the construction?  Who bears the expense of repair or replacement?
22. Are street lights, trees and utility poles in the way of construction?  What provisions are being made for this?  If utility poles and street lights are in the way will they be replaced and at whose expense?  The wires currently hang dangerously low and are often an obstacle.
23.  Has there been any investigation of underground wires that power the street lights or other utilities?  Whose financial responsibility is it to address those wires or other subsurface utilities?
24. What is the procedure for the vote that will be taken in support or in opposition to the Betterment?
25. Will the alley surface above the decommissioned sewer out to W Canton be restored to match the rest of the alley?  What about the cross alley where there is no sewer?


Meeting with Christian Simonelli

Christian Simonelli, Executive Director of the Boston Groundwater Trust, reviewed the proposal for Betterment with a particular eye to the need to preserve the groundwater on Alley 521.  The proposed drainage is “massive” and provides for drainage from buildings that are not part of the project proposed under Betterment.   Proper grading of the alley surface would be critical in maintaining desirable groundwater levels.  Can this grading be maintained with a gravel surface?

Engineering Report Received

The report, dated February 2018, was received by most abutters between May 22 and May 28, 2018.  It outlines the costs and the parameters of the project.  It has raised many questions and concerns.

Sewer process moving forward

Sometime in the next two weeks all abutters connected to the sewer and possibly all alley abutters will receive a letter from Boston Water Sewer with the results and recommendations from the engineering study we petitioned for in June 2016.  We were told then that it would take two years to do the engineering work so they are sending it to us just under the wire.  The next step is a public hearing that they will schedule in mid to late June.  State law has been changed to give residents 30 years rather than 20 years to pay the assessment if the project goes forward.

At the meeting a  vote will be taken of those present to help determine if the project goes forward.  The ultimate decision is with the Commissioners but they are alleged to be guided by the abutters vote.

Those who own multi-family buildings (on paper or in fact) will have the commensurate number of votes and be assessed a multiple of the assessment.