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Thu, March 21

City explains need for backwater valves

PRESCOTT - A city notice that was intended as an educational tool about backwater valves may have come across to local residents more as a hammer.

Earlier this month, the city's Community Development and Public Works departments sent out about 20,000 "courtesy notices" to Prescott's utility customers.

The purpose: to alert local residents about the city code that requires homes to have backwater valves to prevent sewer backups.

The notice requests property owners to do one of two things - install a sewer backwater valve, or sign a "hold harmless" agreement that would cover the city in the case of a sewer backup.

City Manager Steve Norwood allowed that the notice came across as more than educational. "People viewed it as kind of threatening," he said. "But all we're (doing) is putting people on notice."

The notices unleashed an immediate response from local residents. Prescott building official Randy Pluimer estimates that the city has received 700 to 725 calls from residents with questions.

While some residents apparently viewed the notice as ominous, officials now emphasize that the city has no authority to require all homes to immediately install the devices. It is only when a homeowner is seeking a building permit that the city can require the installation or hold-harmless form, they say.

"If they don't have it in today, they're all grandfathered in," Pluimer said of the valves. "There is no one required to put (a backwater valve) in if they're not pulling a permit."

Added Engineering Services Director Mark Nietupski: "It is not a requirement for them to take action."

Even so, Pluimer and Nietupski also stress that the backwater valves are beneficial to homeowners.

"We've had, frankly, issues at times with sewage backup," Nietupski said, adding that the city has received two claims in the past year on sewer-backup issues and one in the previous year.

"When it does happen, it's very problematic for the property owner," Nietupski said. "Since there is a requirement for the backwater device, we certainly are wanting people to comply."

For years, Prescott city code has required - in various forms - that new-home construction include a sewer backwater valve to prevent sewer backups.

"It's nothing new," Pluimer said, noting that previous city codes required the valves in certain instances, depending on the location of the nearest manhole. It was in 2008 that the city began requiring the valves, regardless of the conditions.

That, in turn, led to a situation in which people seeking building permits for other things, such as replacement of windows, were being required to put in a backwater valve in order to get their building permits.

City Council members reportedly received complaints about that scenario, and the city's Legal Department came up with the hold-harmless form. By signing the form, which would "indemnify" the city in case of property damage, the property owner could move forward with the other work without installing the backwater valve.

Then, to raise awareness about the issue, the city opted to send out the Dec. 15 courtesy notices - a move that raised an outcry in the community as residents learned that installation of the backwater devices could cost hundreds of dollars.

Everyone involved emphasized that the cost of the installation depends on the location and depth of the property's sewer service line, and that no "average cost" exists.

"You could spend $300 on an easy one, and you could spend $2,000 on a difficult one," Nietupski said.

Pluimer says many of the recently-built homes in Prescott likely already have backwater valves. But in the older sections of town, he said, the valves are less likely. In fact, Pluimer said a significant percentage of homes in Prescott probably do not have the valves.

Because the city currently has no database of homes that do have the valves, many homeowners are turning to the Yavapai County Contractors Association (YCCA) and/or local plumbers to determine their home's status.

YCCA Executive Director Sandy Griffis says she has fielded more than 75 calls from homeowners, and has referred questions to local plumbers, several of whom will go out to the home free of charge to check whether it already has a backwater valve.

Nietupski said the City of Prescott also will help people determine, free of charge, whether they already have the valve installed.

Kim Gagnon, co-owner of The Plumbing Store, said her business has received 90 to 100 inquiries from homeowners.

"The calls started the day after the letters went out, and we're still getting them," Gagnon said, adding that she continues to get three to four inquiries a day on the issue.

Along with checking for the presence of a valve, Gagnon said, "We're doing free bids. So far, we've bid 40 to 45 jobs."

Generally, Gagnon said, the people inquiring about the valves "seem taken aback by this. They feel a little threatened." But, she added, "(getting the valve) really is a benefit to them."

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