An aging wastewater treatment facility, run by a group of residents not trained to handle such responsibility, could be posing a environmental threat to Lake Lanier.
Homeowners, the city of Cumming, the state Environmental Protection Division and at least two other groups want to help restore the facility.
Problem solved, right?
Well, it's not that simple. Questions over ownership have clouded the situation and prevented a quick remedy.
Attorney George Butler represents Habersham Action Committee, a group of homeowners that took over the facility in 2006 after it was assigned the EPD permit.
"[It is] an understatement," Butler said, "to say that this is a complicated and confused situation."
He said the previous owner's decision to quick deed the property to the committee was mandated by the EPD.
About that same time, however, a second group, Lanier Habersham Investments, bought the property in a foreclosure sale.
While Butler doesn't dispute that sale, he said the property wasn't the bank's to sell.
"The poor Habersham Action Committee is caught in the middle, trying to make sure that the interests of the residents are protected and they can use their title clam to the 10 acres as leverage to make sure that whatever happens, the affected homeowners wind up with quality sewer service," he said.
Larry Oldum, attorney for Lanier Habersham Investments, said his client has a desire to "work out something that works for everybody."
The group is willing to work with the city, he said, but "ownership issues have always been a cloud."
All parties say they would like to avoid a lawsuit. While they assess the situation, however, the EPD is fining the facility for releasing water into the lake that fails to meet state standards.
Private sewers not built to last
Built in the 1970s, the Habersham wastewater treatment plant sits on about 10 acres on Wood Valley Court, just off Buford Dam Road, a couple of miles east of Cumming near the lake.
Between the Habersham subdivision and nearby homes, about 400 residents use the private sewer system.
Due to a lack of infrastructure in the 1970s, privately run sewer systems for large subdivisions were not uncommon.
Developers would build and operate their own sewer systems because the county had limited sewer service and the city's didn't extend that far.
Private systems were more common for county water customers. Only two private systems were constructed in the city water service limits, Habersham and Lanier Beach South, another subdivision whose system was built in the 1970s.
The city bought the Lanier Beach South system a few years ago. After a few minor repairs and replacements, which officials said cost less than $5,000, the plant has received awards for its efficiency.
Life expectancy of a wastewater treatment plant or most sewage infrastructure is about 20 years, said Jon Heard, director of the Cumming Utilities Department.
While the Habersham facility has exceeded its life expectancy, deterioration has greatly reduced the quality of the outgoing water to a point where the facility consistently fails to meet EPD standards.
Bert Langley, district manager for the EPD mountain district, said the Habersham violations are minor, but frequent.
"They're having a little problem with their biochemical oxygen demand levels. That's what it really comes down to," he said.
"None of these violations we've noted seem significant. They are violations and violations need to be taken seriously, but it's not like we're having large amounts of untreated sewage being discarded."
In a February 2007 violation, the plant's basic turbidity, or cloudiness, was at 31 units. The requirement is no more than 30.
The biochemical oxygen demand, which determines the strength of waste in the water, has consistently been above the required limit. The higher the level, the lower the amount of oxygen in the water is available to help break down pollutants.
In December 2007, the monthly average, which should be below 30 parts per million (ppm) was 34 ppm. In July 2007, the plant's weekly average was 72 ppm, well above the EPD required weekly maximum of 45 ppm.
'Got into it to stop this assessment'
The EPD permit was assigned to Habersham Action Committee in 2006. Prior to that, the plant was operated through Infrastructure Solutions, under the ownership of Terrill Turner.
Area homeowners said Turner violated their contract by assessing them fines to cover equipment repairs and future upgrades in an October 2004 letter to homeowners.
"There was no provision in the contract to allow for assessments," said Glenn Berny, homeowner and current plant operating officer.
"The contract ... provided that they could raise our rates, but not assess. We got into it to stop this assessment."
The assessment was $350 for each homeowner, which would cover $150,000 in repairs made over the year prior to October 2004.
The letter also said homeowners will be assessed an additional fee to cover the costs of $1 million in upgrades. The fee was to be invoiced in January 2005, but the homeowners took action before that.
"We stood up and said, 'No, we're not going to pay that,'" said Dottie Hull, president and chief executive officer of the action committee.
Hull compared the charge to a telephone service, saying if a company builds a new telephone tower, it doesn't directly charge customers for it.
As a result, Hull said, Turner "quick deeded the facility to the [committee]," giving it ownership of the 10 acres.
A quit claim deed contains no warranties and only transfers the ownership rights of the seller. If Turner didn't have full ownership of the property, neither would the committee.
Turner could not be reached for comment.
Though the committee assumed ownership under the quick deed transfer, Lanier Habersham Investments contends it bought the property in a July 2006 foreclosure sale.
The property was purchased in portions, Oldum said, for a total investment of $800,000.
Oldum said Lanier Habersham Investments would like to work out a resolution without having to file suit. Whether that's possible remains unknown.
'Would like the city to take over'
Calling it a "tough job," Berny said he has run the sewer as a volunteer for nearly three years.
The facility itself is operated by a part-time professional, who is paid through fees collected from homeowners.
With the help of other homeowners, Berny acts as a landlord of sorts, fielding complaints, helping with the payment process and other managerial functions.
"All of us in this community ... have run the sewer, we work for no compensation," he said. "None of us get paid. We receive calls at night from people that their sewer isn't working. The pump goes down because the system is obsolete.
"It has been obsolete for many years and we would like the city to take over."
Heard said the city would be interested in taking over the facility, and has offered possible solutions for quick action.
But, Heard said, the city is "interested in taking it once the title issues are resolved, but not until then." The plant itself would need to be replaced.
"We're talking about building a sewer collection system, pump stations and a waste water treatment plant to serve 400 citizens," he said. "This plant can be operated properly with adequate funding and proper support."
The city could make that investment and update the Habersham plant as it did with Lanier Beach South, or it could choose to close the plant entirely and reroute the wastewater to its main treatment facility off Bethelview Road.
The EPD permit held by the committee expires at year's end. Berny said he's "getting tired" of running the system, and while letting the permit expire would be the easy way out, he's assumed a responsibility he doesn't want to pass off blindly.
"We know we can't turn off the motors and let the [untreated] water run into Lake Lanier," he said.
Berny said the committee has received several violation notices, but has not paid them.
"We've never paid a fine," he said, adding there have been no ramifications for their inaction. "The EPD just doesn't seem very interested in this case."
The EPD is working on taking action, but the "current owners are reluctant to commit money and effort to address any real substantial [problems] to the facility," Langley said.
Proposed penalties since the committee took over totals about $9,500.
"The board of natural resources has reported a zero-tolerance policy, so any time a facility violates one of their permit standards - no matter how small it is - there is a penalty assessed," Langley said. "For these smaller things ... the penalty is around $750 or so, depending on the number of violations."
In the meantime, the violations and the accompanying fines will continue to mount until a settlement can be reached.