'Tremendous burden': Some in Penn Twp. socked with nearly $20K for sewer work

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

Some Penn Township residents are suffering sticker shock over a new sewer project.

About 50 homeowners in the Oak Hill and Hershey Heights areas will be required to connect to the public sewer line at a cost of nearly $20,000 each — an amount some of them say is excessive.

The project, mandated by the state Department of Environmental Protection because of fecal contamination in well water and other factors, will begin in 2019 and take one to two years to complete.  

The 47 homeowners will have to pay not only the $2,300 tapping fee, but also $15,000 toward infrastructure costs. They also will be responsible for paying to have their septic systems removed.

The financial burden will be too much for many of the residents, nearly half of whom are retired and living on Social Security, said James Fuhrman, of the Oak Hill area.

"(Township officials are) unwilling to budge; we've tried everything," said Fuhrman, who is retired. "It's a tremendous burden on quite a few families in this area." 

The project: The state mandated the project after Penn Township submitted its Act 537 plan to the DEP in 2016. The plan is required to be submitted at least every decade.

The plan allows the the DEP to "address existing sewage disposal needs and to help prevent future problems through the proper planning, permitting and design of all types of sewage facilities," according to its website.

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The 2016 plan was rejected because of contamination in the well water. Other factors, such as lot size, soil quality, geology and percolation tests also led the DEP to mandate that residents in the area connect to the public sewer lines.

Although the state regulates sewage systems, it doesn't regulate private drinking water. Therefore, residents won't be forced to use public water lines.

DEP regional spokesman John Repetz said the community can't simply treat the water for sewage, as that "does not address the likely source of the well contamination."

As a result, the project — and the costs associated with it — are unavoidable, officials said.

"I understand both sides of this," Penn Township Commissioner Justin Heiland said. "We're trying to obey state mandates and at the same time keep (residents) healthy."

The commissioner added the township is "trying to keep everyone happy," but that's proving difficult.

Because the distance between existing lines and the affected homes is greater than usual, the cost to run new connections is higher than usual, Heiland said.

Cindy Staley, of the Hershey Heights area, said she knew the project was in the works but had no idea it would cost so much.

"We're very frustrated because of the infrastructure fee and how much it is," she said. "We knew they were bringing (the sewer line) out, but we didn't know how much it would be. I don't know of any other townships that have charged infrastructure fees."

Like Fuhrman, Staley is retired and said she'd "rather not" pull money out of her retirement fund.

But Repetz said the costs "aren't unreasonable," adding the township has the right to come up with its own price tag. 

Funding relief:  The township could have forced residents to pay  every penny, Heiland said, but officials wanted to provide as much relief as possible. 

Heiland said the township is covering "all of the other costs," such as pumping stations, but no financial aid is being offered for costs associated with infrastructure, tapping and the removal of septic systems.

Furhman suggested the township "charge us zero for infrastructure" and instead raise the sewer rates, but Heiland said raising rates to fund such a project is illegal, as rates are only meant for costs such as pumping and treating sewage.

Additionally, because the average income of residents is $61,648, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data, the township is "too affluent" to receive grants, Heiland said.

The township does have a $5 million sewer fund, some of which can be used for the project. But the township has other projects in the works.

Per a separate DEP mandate, $1.1 million of the fund is being used to upgrade the disinfectant process in the township' sewer treatment plan. Another $1 million is being used for a pumping project on Barnhart Drive.

The rest will be used to help the township pay costs not covered by residents.

Heiland urged residents to contact contractors to see if they can get group discounts for work needed to tap into the line and remove their septic systems.

State Rep. Kate Klunk, R-Hanover, who represents the township, said she shares the residents' concern and is hoping to find additional relief.

"Like the residents, I, too, am dismayed by the costs they are being asked to incur," Klunk said. "I also understand the potential need to bring sewer to the Hershey Heights and Oak Hill area of the township."

The representative added she is in the process of setting up a meeting between the residents who will have to foot the bill and the DEP to "assist the residents" and "seek answers to state requirements and testing."

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.