Sep 26, 2007

Affluent Split Over Effluent

Septic tanks or sewers? The question of how to treat wastewater in the exclusive beachfront community of Rincon Point, Calif., is pitting neighbors, surfers and environmentalists against one another.

Surfers have long complained about getting sick at the world-class surf break here that straddles Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. And blame for the pollution has long been laid on the septic tanks of the multimillion-dollar homes in the gated enclave of Rincon Point.

After nine years of debate and several lawsuits, homeowners are to vote next month on whether to convert from the tanks to a sewer system. While most residents appear to back the conversion, a vocal group of residents is questioning its wisdom, with several saying they feel bullied into paying for an expensive system that would only encourage more development and more pollution.

Tests in 1999 showed signs of human waste in a creek that runs through Rincon Point into the ocean. But no fecal coliform bacteria were found upstream, which proponents of a sewer system say proves the septic tanks are responsible.

Opponents of the change say that since 1999 malfunctioning or old septic tanks have been repaired or replaced. Laura Orlando, a wastewater expert from Boston University whom they brought in, said that the tests proved nothing and that the bacteria could have come from the diaper of a child swimming in the creek or ocean.

If the sewer vote passes, the owners of Rincon Point’s 72 homes will have to pay about $80,000 each to build the infrastructure to hook up to the waste treatment center in the city of Carpinteria, next to Rincon. The state would contribute about $2.1 million.

In part because Rincon Point property is so valuable — a beachfront cottage considered a “tear down” by at least one agent is now listed for $4.4 million — most residents can afford to pay, either up front or over 30 years.

An environmental advocacy group, Heal the Ocean, has been pushing for sewers for nine years. But Hillary Hauser, who recounts founding the group because surfers asked her to help clean the water off Rincon Point, says “misinformation” could derail the project. Ms. Hauser pointed to what the Carpinteria Sanitary District’s general manager, Craig Murray, said were “absurd” reports that homeowners were being asked to bankroll the project because it is critical to developers of a proposed resort.

Still, Ms. Hauser was optimistic the sewer project would pass because of homeowners like Steve Halsted, who says the “silent majority” of residents support the sewer.

Mr. Halsted said the public perception of Rincon Point was of “a lot of rich people polluting their ocean.”

“It’s time we do the right thing and get off of our septics and onto sewers and get this cloud away from us,” he said.

The ballots, which have been mailed to homeowners, will be tallied at a public meeting in Carpinteria on Oct. 16.