How Homeowners' Associations Can Successfully Manage Advanced Onsite Systems

Article excerpt

Wastewater systems are frequently installed as inexpensively as possible and maintained by the developer only until all lots are sold. Then operation of the wastewater system becomes the responsibility of the homeowners' association or individual lot owners.

The average homeowners' association has no understanding of the technology it is inheriting and probably no knowledge of permit requirements. Many homeowners' associations meet only annually, and there are almost always newly elected members. The result is a lack of continuity in leadership. Board members who are willing to dun their neighbors for unpaid sewer bills or to demand inspections are likely to get voted off the board. Even if the board does insist that members pay their sewer bills, it usually has no affordable legal recourse if someone refuses to pay. Most deed restrictions are fairly vague about enforcement issues, and few homeowners' associations can afford to file liens or begin collection action in local court.

As long as the toilets flush, wastewater is invisible.

Still, there is hope for the future: Some existing models--in Kansas and Massachusetts--could be adapted for the management of either individual onsite systems or clustered systems in subdivisions, as long as local regulators are willing to be proactive.

In Kansas, a rural water district was facing wellhead protection issues involving a new subdivision with individual onsite systems. The district negotiated a solution with the developer involving deed restrictions and voluntary compliance with local health department regulations. The final agreement, which was included both in the deed restrictions of each lot and in the plat of the subdivision, was primarily designed to ensure that water wells would be protected. Inadvertently, however, it included some very forward thinking terms in subdivision plat and deed restrictions. The developer was required to install a specific type of advanced treatment system on all lots, subject to approval by the water district. All systems had to be installed by qualified technicians, who were subject to county health department approval. Each system had to be covered by a three-year, prepaid maintenance agreement, continuously renewed, which had to be filed with both the water district and the county health department. If a homeowner failed to renew the agreement, the homeowners' association was required to do so on that homeowner's behalf and to assess the cost of the maintenance agreement plus an administrative penalty fee against the homeowner. If the fee was not paid within 30 days, the homeowners' association was required to file a lien against the homeowner's property. The maintenance providers were required to file annual certificates with the water district and the county health department certifying that the system had been tested and was functioning properly. Any repairs to the system noted in the report had to be made by the homeowner within 15 days of the date of the report, or the homeowners' association was required to make the repairs and collect fees.

This is impressive. Without even knowing about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's five models of management, the regulators, the water district, and the developer devised a voluntary plan that ended up making the homeowners' association look much like a true utility. It would be easy to tweak a few items and create a voluntary agreement for any new homeowners' association that adopts the accepted technical, managerial, and financial principles necessary to manage individual onsite systems effectively.

The term "qualified contractor" was not defined in the original document, and the health department would have to be involved in that process. The deed restrictions should grant additional enforcement powers to the health department if a system requires repairs and a homeowner refuses to repair it. In order to streamline enforcement actions, water shutoff agreements should be included in the deed restrictions so that the water can be shut off by the homeowners' association if the homeowner refuses to pay for a maintenance agreement. …