2015-05-07 / Front Page

Residents raise a stink over sewer clog

By Sylvie Belmond

DISRUPTION—Steven Shvarts and his wife, Yucian Cai, owners of a single-story townhome on Conejo View Drive in Agoura Hills, were kept out of their home following a major sewage backup last month. 
Sylvie Belmond/Acorn Newspapers DISRUPTION—Steven Shvarts and his wife, Yucian Cai, owners of a single-story townhome on Conejo View Drive in Agoura Hills, were kept out of their home following a major sewage backup last month. Sylvie Belmond/Acorn Newspapers Six Agoura families are coping with a major disruption in their lives following a sewer line clog near the Annandale townhomes on April 11.

A blockage near the street allowed an estimated 43,000 gallons of raw sewage to back up into homes through toilets and tubs in the 28800 block of Conejo View Drive in Agoura Hills.

“What a nightmare,” resident Roohi Pinhassian said as she pointed to the mess and unfinished cleanup work inside her home.

“We cannot live here,” neighbor Steven Shvarts said.

The Los Angeles County Consolidated Sewer Maintenance District operates and maintains the public sewer system in Agoura Hills.

Four of the six townhomes affected by the spill on Conejo View are single-story units.

Repairs are underway but could take another six weeks to complete. The county is paying for the cleanup, but more than three weeks after the incident it is still refusing to compensate and relocate homeowners, resident Jim Wells said.

The county requested the residents pay up front for accommodations at a nearby extended-stay hotel for what could be five or six more weeks.

“Requests to establish a direct billing from the hotel to the county were refused,” Wells said.

Wells and his family chose to return home several days after the damage, but they are confined to the upstairs portion of their home.

All their appliances are disconnected so they can’t cook or do laundry. The bottom 2 feet of drywall was removed from all downstairs spaces, including the kitchens and bathrooms, due to moisture damage from the spill. Furniture and personal possessions remain stacked in the center of each room. In some homes, the items are covered and sealed with plastic and duct tape.

In addition to the difficult living conditions, residents are concerned about possible asbestos and bacterial contamination.

“I have no home to come to. Now I worry and I wait,” said Pinhassian, who works in Valencia and spent about $4,000 on temporary lodging so far.

Shvarts, who lives in a singlestory unit with his wife, Yuqian Cai, and son, said he has no choice but to stay away. His home is completely unusable.

“I have many other things to do,” said the unemployed electronics design engineer. Shvarts has been using a credit card to pay for his hotel bill.

Shvarts has spent almost $3,500 on interim housing.

“What has me concerned most is that I was told reimbursements are at the sole discretion of the County of Los Angeles,” he said.

In addition to the immediate financial impacts, Wells’ wife, Gail, said the sewer backup could reduce property values for the homes.

“This is really bad what’s happened to us. The way the county has responded in almost a callous nature is really scary,” she said.

Unsure of what to do next, some residents are considering hiring an attorney.

County responds

Bob Spencer, spokesperson for the county department of public works, said the exact cause of the sewer blockage has yet to be determined.

Sewer lines use gravity to prevent back flow, but roots, calcium deposits, fats, grease and other debris can accumulate and clog in the pipes over time.

Since the stoppage occurred in a main underground line and is considered a biohazard, the county responded immediately by clearing the pipe and cleaning the spills inside and outside the homes.

“We’re certainly very sympathetic to the challenges facing the residents. But we have to adhere to the county system because we’re dealing with public funds,” Spencer said.

In these situations, homeowners can either have the county come in and do the initial clean up, or hire their own contractor, Spencer said. All property owners on Conejo View Drive opted to have the county do the work.

While assessing the damages, workers also discovered asbestos in the walls and flooring. “So the next step now is to remove the asbestos,” Spencer said.

With regards to temporary accommodations, he said the county intends to reimburse residents for their structural losses. It does not have a system in place to pay cash in advance for their hotel costs.

“It’s a claim system so affected people are required to make arrangements and then complete claim forms to get reimbursement for that. In this case, we are trying to work very closely with the property owners, we also had meetings with the county counsel to look at this system and see if there are other methods that we could utilize—but unfortunately, there are not,” Spencer said.

He said his agency is working to get the problem resolved as quickly as possible.

“We have sewer line issues (sometimes) but this is a more severe one that has certainly provided us with some challenges. We’re trying to expedite the repairs,” he said.

Once the asbestos is removed, property owners will have to find their own contractors to restore their homes. Once that work is complete, they can then file a claim to seek reimbursement from the county, Spencer said.

Because the townhomes were built in the 1970s, they do not have back-flow valves. But the valves will be required when all the work is complete, Spencer said.

The residents said their homeowners association did not advocate for them and chose to remain uninvolved in the case.

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