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Occidental, home of sky-high sewage rates, eyes outlet in Graton, but some residents object

Two Italian-style restaurants have drawn generations of diners to Occidental while serving pasta, pizza and soup - in recent years under the burden of the steepest sewage treatment rates in Sonoma County and among the highest in California.

Negri’s Original Italian Restaurant and the Union Hotel, both run by local families, pay about $120,000 a year in wastewater fees included in their property tax bills, shouldering much of the cost in a west county sanitation district that serves about 100 properties.

“You gotta sell a lot of ravioli to pay for that,” said Al Negri, former operator of his family’s eatery, established in 1943. “It would be fantastic if we got some relief.”

There could be some help coming from Graton, about 6 miles to the east with an underutilized wastewater plant that would profit from handling Occidental’s output of 18,000 gallons of sewage a day.

But there’s a catch: Graton’s plant is on a wooded 20-acre site north of the town with no road access, and finding a place to connect with the community’s sewer system has proved elusive. Neighborhood protests thwarted so many attempts to deal with Occidental’s wastewater that officials resorted two years ago to trucking it to a plant in an industrial area next to the county airport.

Residents of the 53-unit Blue Spruce Mobilehome Lodge on Green Valley Road in Sebastopol mobilized quickly after learning of the Graton Community Service District’s plan to build a wastewater receiving station 3 feet from the entrance to their park and 20 feet from the nearest mobile home, occupied by a 100-year-old woman and her son-in-law.

Graton’s plan calls for pumping six truckloads of untreated sewage a day into a valve on a concrete pad at the edge of a gas station at the corner of Green Valley Road and Highway 116.

A petition signed by 53 residents, some from the same family, objected to the project, and 15 people attended a Graton district board meeting last week, complaining about lack of advance notice of the project and objecting to the potential noise, traffic and odor.

“Why were we not consulted as stakeholders?” park resident Loren Bennitt said, asserting the project “puts the health and safety of 54 families completely at risk.”

“I have trouble understanding why anybody would want to put a sewage dump site (here),” resident Charlene Flowers said, adding the district’s move feels like “a deliberate attempt to just slip this by.”

Karin Lease, a Graton Community Service District board member, said it felt like an “us and them thing going on ... we’re just ratepayers.”

Lease acknowledged that “sometimes the outreach is not what it could be.”

Jose Ortiz, the district’s general manager, said a 65-page consultant’s report was prepared to assess the project’s impacts and also admitted that residents should have been notified.

The report found the project would have no “potentially significant” impact on air quality, noise, ? traffic, the environment and other factors.

Ortiz said the district is preparing responses to all the comments it has received on the project and he intends to seek board approval on Feb. 18. If that happens, the wastewater transport project could begin this fall, he said.

“It’s not a done deal, still,” said Dave Clemmer, the board president.

Mike Thompson, assistant general manager at Sonoma Water, the county agency that operates the Occidental wastewater system and seven others in the county, said an agreement between the Graton and Occidental districts would have to be negotiated and approved by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

Graton is an independent wastewater district that serves about 430 customers, mostly residences, with a treatment plant off Ross Lane north of the town. The Occidental district, which no longer operates a treatment plant, serves about 100 customers.

“This could be a win-win for both the Occidental and Graton communities,” Thompson said.

In five to 10 years, the project could benefit the Occidental district, which is subsidized by the county and has one of the highest sewer rates in the state at $2,387 a year for the equivalent of a single-family home.

The Occidental restaurants pay about 50 times that amount based on the number of seats.

Graton’s plant has capacity to spare and the county has for two decades sought an alternative for Occidental’s treatment plant, ordered by the state in 1997 to quit discharging treated effluent into Dutch Bill Creek, a Russian River tributary and coho salmon spawning stream.

Plans to haul Occidental’s wastewater to Guerneville and to a Ross Road lift station near Graton were thwarted by neighborhood protests, and trucks have been ferrying the effluent 18 miles through Graton to the county-operated airport plant. Graton’s project would shorten the route to 7 miles.

“I expect that I’m going to have the same kind of resistance anywhere I go,” Ortiz told the board last week.

Thompson said sanitation districts throughout the state encounter opposition to locating facilities near homes. Wastewater treatment is “an essential service that people just want to be invisible,” he said.

Occidental would pay Graton $1.2 million in one-time sewer connection fees and an annual service fee of about $120,000 under the program, he said. Without that revenue, Graton will need to consider a rate increase in the next five to six years.

Blue Spruce residents are Graton ratepayers.

Maurice Priest, president of the nonprofit that owns Blue Spruce, said in a letter to the Graton district the project “would create a significant risk to the health and safety” of the residents, whose average age is 70.

Meanwhile, the district is also facing a protest from Fred Mashhour, the gas station owner who wants to get out of his agreement to let the district use a portion of his property for the wastewater receiving station. Mashhour said in a letter to the district he was not fully advised of the project’s impact.

Philip Welch, a lawyer for Mashhour, sent a letter to Graton district’s lawyer asserting the contract is unenforceable. Ortiz said the district will respond to Welch’s letter.

“For now I think we have a valid agreement,” he said. “We’re not going to force the project down anyone’s throat.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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