Payson’s last frontier — as the Northern Gila County Sanitary District manager calls the last large section of town with septic tanks — could soon lose its leaky tanks, which occasionally lead to sewage seeping above ground.
Residents would no longer have to worry about septic tanks that fill up and occasionally prevent toilets from flushing. Moreover, the town wouldn’t have to think about the threat of contamination for the drinking water well in the area.
“It’s a health issue,” said resident Joyce Bucher. “We have Payson Elementary School sitting right in the middle of it.”
Some 126 homes off Airline and Luke Drive, east of the Beeline Highway, will soon have the opportunity, once again, to join the sanitary district. That means sewers could replace many failing septic systems in about two years.
If the plan fails, solving the problem could require a long process of complaints and individual resolutions that would likely cost two-and-a-half times more than the current $1.5 million, $10,000 per household, proposal.
Some property owners in the last frontier have fought for two decades to join the sewer system. But in the 1980s, a majority voted against including the area in a plan to sewer Rancho Road.
Residents who support joining the sanitary district now fear those same property owners could again say no to sewer.
“If we let this window of opportunity pass us by,” said resident Bruce Staples, “it’s not going to happen in our lifetimes.”
“The statute doesn’t allow us to play bully,” said Joel Goode, manager of the Northern Gila County Sanitary District. An area has to prove it wants the sanitary district’s service.
He said that although the previous attempt occurred shortly before his arrival, some property owners didn’t want to pay for the project.
“That’s unfortunate because the assessment was a whole lot less then than it is now,” Goode said.
Because of the town’s concern over its two area wells, it would chip in 20 to 25 percent, according to LaRon Garrett, the town’s public works director.
Buzz Walker, the head of Payson’s water department, said one of the two wells in the area provides drinking water to residents. The water is tested monthly, and although trace levels of nitrates have appeared, Walker said the water is safe to drink.
Jake Garrett, the county’s wastewater department manager, estimated that every rainstorm brings three to five phone calls from residents complaining of sewage in the street. His office investigates, but must find the leak’s source in order to make a property owner replace the failing septic system.
Garrett couldn’t give a percentage of the times a complaint leads to a specific source. If that happens, however, the identified property owner has 24 hours to fix the problem or his water will be turned off, which has never happened. Then, the property owner has 15 days to replace the failing system.
Because the septic tanks were originally installed 30 to 40 years ago, most don’t meet current regulations. This means some property owners can’t simply replace their septic tanks — they would need to install an alternative system that can cost $25,000.
Garrett said today’s septic tanks last about 20 years.
“I think every system in that area is going to fail sooner or later,” he said. “Any that don’t fail soon will be very lucky.”
Paul Penning is among a group of property owners who have canvassed the neighborhood to gather support for a coming petition that will again open the door for annexation.
Penning says the group had 78 percent of homeowners willing to sign the petition, from Wright Circle east.
Then the sanitary district expanded the boundary to again include the area that previously defeated the measure — areas of Airline Road.
The neighbors in the northeastern part of the district who have wanted to join the sanitary district for 20 years worry that the same property owners will again defeat annexation.
Goode says including the area decreases the cost from about $17,000 per lot to $10,000. He also says that if property owners in a specific geographic area defeat the annexation petition, the sanitary district can re-draw the lines in six months.
However, several things have changed this time. First, the town will help pay for the project. Second, sanitary district personnel will directly circulate the petition instead of the neighbors canvassing themselves.
“These people over the years have talked amongst themselves up and down the street,” Goode said. “Shortly after they start, they give up.” People slam doors, worry about property rights and increased taxes.
In order for the petition to pass, 51 percent of the property owners must sign it, and the signatures must represent 51 percent of the assessed valuation.
Town and county officials met with neighbors recently to discuss the possible annexation, which is the first step in building sewer lines.
Next week, the sanitary district board is expected to set a date for a public hearing, during which it can approve circulating a petition. A majority of property owners must sign the petition to indicate interest in annexation.
If the sanitary district board approves the petition, then an improvement district forms, through which a financial adviser and attorney work to build the financial and legal framework of taxing, bonding and finding the best interest rates. Simultaneously, engineers design the sewer.
“Nothing about this is quick,” said Goode. He said two years could pass before the sewer is in the ground.
Roughly 45 residents attended the recent meeting with local government officials to discuss the developing plan, although all homeowners in the proposed annexation area were invited.
“The group that was there, I think there was a good amount of interest,” said LaRon Garrett.
The neighbors around Luke Drive worry about the interest of the people who weren’t there, yet they’re optimistic.
“This is as far as we’ve ever gotten,” said Cliff Bucher.