Sewickley Heights Residents Hope to Keep Their Homes Despite Septic System Issues

The borough is negotiating with a few property owners to help resolve an ongoing sewage discharge problem.

Rose LaSpada Smith lives in the same house her father built in where, over the generations, she built her own memories.

The family was given the land on Scaife Road as payment for working on a local estate. Uncles emigrated from Sicily, worked and lived on the property. Her father, born in the kitchen of what is now a neighbor’s house, raised his own family there. And it's where LaSpada Smith raised her three kids.

But LaSpada Smith said she and two other families are now being forced to leave those memories behind.

William Rohe, borough manager, said septic tanks from three homes are discharging into a small stream nearby. Property owners have been ordered to either update their septic systems at a price of about $30,000 each or lose their occupancy permits.

LaSpada Smith said she was approved for a $10,000 loan, not nearly enough to cover the fix.

“We’ve been trying to fix the septic. They won’t give us an affordable approved plan,” said LaSpada Smith's daughter-in-law Crystal Smith, who also lives there.

The average appraised value of the three homes is $53,000, though for most in Sewickley Heights, an affluent suburb of Pittsburgh, the average home appraisal is $475,000, according to Allegheny County assessments.

Rohe said most of the state uses septic systems, including the majority of homes in the borough of about 900 residents. A few properties that abut Sewickley and newer homes on Sewickley Heights Drive and Glen Mitchell Road do have public sewage, he said.

Borough officials told the Tribune-Review it would be costly to connect homes to water and sewage lines because the borough’s hilly topography would require pumping stations to push the water up or down hills.

“Everyone has their own form of disposing waste on their lots,” Rohe said. “These three lots don’t have a viable solution to their problem.”

LaSpada Smith said she paid $3,000 to have a contractor design a viable solution that would help her 25-year-old septic tank pass inspection. He drew up a small flow treatment plan, the same method being used at a neighboring house that once belonged to LaSpada Smith’s parents. She said the borough turned down the plan.

According to the Tribune-Review, an inspector authorized the one home to discharge treated water into the stream, but when two others made similar requests, the state Department of Environmental Protection proposed they build a treatment facility that turned out to be too costly.

Sewickley Heights and DEP officials tried to find other solutions, such as experimental treatment systems or holding tanks, but residents said those upgrades were too expensive too, the Trib reports.

LaSpada Smith wonders why the residents can’t share a holding tank, a much cheaper solution to resolve the discharge issue, that was also not approved, she said.

Rohe said the borough is not under a consent order, but are attempting to resolve the discharge issue to protect residents. He said the owners have been offered appraised value as if there were properly-functioning septic systems, plus 10 percent because the appraisals were performed a year ago.

“We’re offering them quite a bit,” he said.

Septics inspected at two other nearby homes were determined to be fine. One belongs to Barbara McCombe, who has lived there 47 years, and believes her neighbors are being unfairly forced out.

One retired property owner who agreed to sell is picking up and moving to another state, she said.

“At 72 years old, to have to uproot her life … that’s a crime,” McCombe said.

Rohe said negotiations are ongoing. Once purchased, the homes will be demolished.

LaSpada Smith isn't sure what to do.

“It’s not the nicest house on the block. We’re not the richest people on the block, but it is a family homestead,” she said.


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John Linko June 27, 2012 at 05:57 AM
This is Sewickley Heights, a different animal altogether. As much as it might set an interesting precedent, if I were running the Heights I would offer to either assist the homeowners in obtaining low-interest, guaranteed financing to bring their septic systems up to code, or help to pay for the upgrades outright, in exchange for right of first refusal to purchase the properties when the owners are ready to sell. This would result in less capital outlay of taxpayer dollars now, the current residents get to remain in their homes, and the borough knows they will eventually control the properties when the present owners are gone, and can plan and budget accordingly. Win-Win-Win.
Mary Kay Russo June 27, 2012 at 12:58 PM
What a shame that families that have a history in a community are being driven out of their homes because they don't have the finances to compare with others in the so called neighborhood. If the borough can offer them money to buy their homes why not use that money to come up with a septic system that will allow them to stay there. As for Craig's comment of "bringing down the property values", I guess you are only allowed to live in Sewickley Heights if your house is worth over a million dollars..
Outraged Citizen June 27, 2012 at 02:20 PM
It’s not the responsibility of taxpayers to ensure someone’s property meets occupancy standards. That falls solely on the property owner. If these families cannot come up with the funds to fix the problem and stop polluting the environment, the Borough has no recourse but to step in to stop the reckless behavior. In addition to the fact it is not the responsibility of taxpayers to fix these families problems, it doesn’t make logical/financial sense to do so as well. Why would taxpayers want to throw away money fixing the septic systems of houses barely worth the cost of fixing the issue, especially given the fact that these homes are in such deplorable condition with no prospect of getting better. We might as well light a pile on money fire and watch it burn as it would have the same result. The Win-Win-Win situation here is for the families to take the very generous offer and move. It would be a win for the environment, a win for other Borough and a win for the families who can start a better life in improved surroundings.
worried resident June 29, 2012 at 02:36 AM
This doesn't sound like they are asking for the borough to pay for the septic. They only want approval to install the same system that everyone else is using. It's a simple game to rid the heights of low income families.
Laura Penderghast June 29, 2012 at 01:34 PM
I grew up in Sewickley, and I hate telling people that because they think I'm a snooty, selfish, self-indulgent megalomaniac. This is the kind of thing that gives Sewickley a bad name. The borough is just trying to get rid of homes that don't compare to the extravagant mansions. Stop thinking your so entitled to everything, and give these families a reasonable solution!


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