As the Johnstown and surrounding communities continue to press forward on sewer projects, the issue of abandoned homes is often raised.
Some suggest owners of substandard homes will “walk away” from the property and let the taxpayers pick up the bill for sewer work, but that is not as easy as it sounds, city leaders say.
Property owners can’t simply give up legal responsibility. Although abandoned homes will not be connected to new sewer mains, property owners still must pay taxes and will be ordered to pay for demolition when the property is condemned, City Manager Kristen Denne said.
Realistically, the scenario has not been a problem in surrounding communities where sewer replacements are already completed, Johnstown attorney William G. Barbin said.
Barbin is solicitor for the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority.
“I know of no homes being abandoned in any of the communities tributary to the Johnstown treatment system, which have completed pressure testing,” Barbin said.
Citing his work on sewer projects with Glendale Valley Municipal Authority in White and Reade townships, Central Mainline Sewer Authority in the Cresson-Portage area and West Branch Sewer Authority in Nicktown and West Carroll Township, Barbin noted that all those projects required pressure testing on lines.
“In some cases, persons choose not to connect dilapidated structures that had no occupants to the system,” he said. “Under mandatory tap ordinances, (the owners) had to establish that they had no plumbing facilities capable of providing water under pressure.
“This was done in each instance more to avoid the tap-in fee and monthly sewer bill than to avoid pressure testing their lateral.”
In Johnstown, truly abandoned structures will not be connected to the new system, Steve Sewalk of the EADS group said.
As new sewer lines are installed and existing homes connected, pressure testing is being required to ensure the new system is sealed so rainwater does not enter from downspouts, floor drains or infiltration as groundwater. But the old sewer lines will remain in place and eventually become storm sewers, Sewalk explained.
“If we come across an abandoned house, we do not run a new lateral to it,” he said. “We are running parallel systems wherever we can.”
Any stormwater entering the sewer lines from downspouts or infiltration from the abandoned home will continue to flow out from the existing sewer line into the old sanitary sewer when it becomes a storm sewer. There will be outlets into waterways just as the existing storm sewers have.
If the old lateral collapses and water backs up into the home’s basement, it’s still the responsibility of the property owner, Sewalk noted.
Randy Griffith is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/photogriffer57.