The Arvida-designed Burnt Hickory Lakes neighborhood sits off Burnt Hickory Road and boasts rows of 25-year-old homes — each worth about $350,000 to $400,000 by one resident’s estimate — that are “very well cared for,” according to Laura Armstrong, secretary of the Homeowner’s Association.
“My neighbors are honest and really nice people,” Armstrong said.
But unbeknownst to many of those neighbors, the county water department had been providing them with free sewage services for years.
Now, the county is calling on residents to pay them back for treating their waste at its public facility over the past decade or more.
“When the subdivision was started in the early ’90s, the sewer was installed in the streets but was not available to be connected to the houses,” explained Stephen McCullers, director of Cobb’s water system.
He said the neighborhood’s first houses were built with septic tanks because the sewer system was not yet what he called “live,” or connected to the public sewer system and available for use. McCullers noted this was simply an issue of timing.
Once the sewer system did go live, McCullers said residents of the subdivision began scrapping their septic tanks in favor of public sewage connections over the years. They did so without notifying the department, he said.
According to McCullers, the conversion process is “fairly easy” and can be performed by a plumber.
To connect legally, McCullers said a permit is needed. However, he noted some homeowners who hired a third party to switch from septic may have incorrectly assumed their contractors would alert the county water department.
“We’re not trying to penalize anybody,” McCullers said. “We’re just trying to recover payments for services they’ve received.”
A statute of limitations prevents the department from demanding back payments for periods dating more than four years, but McCullers said the county is attempting to collect a fee on top of the years of accumulated monthly payments his department claims it is owed.
“When anybody builds a house and connects to the sewer, they have to pay a $2,900 fee, and there are no exceptions to that,” he said of the “capacity charge” his department is seeking from residents.
Homeowners who wish to dodge the capacity charge must prove to the county they did not own their houses when the septic-to-sewer conversion was made.
One Burnt Hickory Lakes resident who declined to be named said she had no idea her home had ever run on a septic tank when she purchased it in 2005.
All she was able to learn about the sewage switch was that it occurred sometime between the house’s construction in 1991 and the last time it was professionally surveyed in 2001.
“I’ve just been paying my water bill ever since I’ve lived in the house,” she said. “How was I supposed to know I was receiving a service I wasn’t being charged for?”
The resident said her neighbors who have received the letter have reacted with “anger.” Many of them have begun to band together to explore their options.
“Everybody is just exasperated with Cobb water because they’re not answering the questions that need to be answered,” she explained.
The resident estimates 15 homeowners came forward during a recent general meeting to discuss their collective predicament, where emotions ran high, she said.
McCullers said 23 letters in total had been delivered in the neighborhood.
The resident said affected homeowners have slated another meeting for tonight.
She guessed they would use the time to form a list of questions she said the county has failed to answer and for residents to discuss their options.
“We’ve talked about possibly even trying to put together a class action suit,” she said. “We don’t know at this point if it’s going to come to that.”
Residents say the neighborhood’s board has helped affected households begin to organize their strategy as a community unit.
“From the BHL Board of Directors perspective, we view our job as to support them in this effort,” said Terry Spoon, president of the subdivision’s board, in an email. “There has been some great work done on this already.”
Spoon encouraged outsiders to empathize with residents’ plight.
“Put yourself in their shoes,” he urged. “How would you like to get a $5-6K bill for something you had no knowledge of?”
Armstrong said she reached out to Commissioner Helen Goreham, who represents their district, to see if she could provide the homeowners with some guidance on the issue.
But Goreham declined to meet with affected residents or involve herself with the issue.
“I don’t have anything to add,” Goreham told the MDJ. “I’m allowing the water department to handle it.”
She did not indicate whether she would revisit the situation if it escalated, but noted she is “always open for input from the public.”
“We have county commissioners who don’t want to have anything to do with it, and we just feel like our county commissioners should have our backs,” said the resident who asked to remain anonymous.
She said the most pressing question she and her neighbors would like answered is why the county has decided to come after her neighborhood “out of the blue.”
“We test the sewers periodically, once every five years or 10 years,” McCullers explained. “And we found during that testing that some of these houses were connected to sewer that did not appear in our billing records.”
According to multiple Burnt Hickory Lakes residents, some of the letter recipients have occupied their homes for 20 years and have never heard a word from the county until this month.
“Frankly, this is the largest concentration of houses that we’ve seen since I’ve been with the county,” McCullers said. “Normally, we’ll find two or three together.”