Cheltenham's $80 Million Sewer Problem

Debra Domsky, of Cheltenham, sitting in her yard on Woodland Avenue, Tuesday, May 24, 2016. Domsky is one of numerous residents raising concerns about the township's massive sewer problems. Brian X. McCrone/NBC10

In the blue-collar neighborhood of Cheltenham Village, bordering Northeast Philadelphia, Bob Hoffman has owned and rented out a duplex for 30 years.

No longer burdened by a mortgage, Hoffman and his brother, who owns and rents out another duplex on Ryers Avenue, are able to keep rents low for their tenants. But that’s becoming tougher, with local taxes now above $6,000 on each of their properties.

And that’s before "the sewer issue," as Hoffman called it Tuesday while pruning some front yard bushes at his brother’s property.

"My cousin lived a couple blocks from here on Beecher [Avenue]," Hoffman said. "He went to Chester County and has less taxes. He knew the sewer issue was coming."

Cheltenham Township, one of Philadelphia’s largest and most diverse suburbs, is about to embark on a 10-year sewer improvement project that the township’s top official estimates could cost up to $80 million, or about $8 million a year.

That doesn’t include the cost many individual property owners will have to pay up to $10,000, depending on lot size, to replace their sewer line laterals -- the pipe that connects homes to the municipal sewer system. Township Manager Bryan Havir said last week that the number of property owners who will have to replace their laterals will not be known until inspectors begin going door-to-door later this year.

With about 15,000 parcels in the township, inspections will take seven to eight years. The township plans to begin those later this year in Cheltenham Village and Glenside. In early 2017, inspectors will canvas the Wyncote and Melrose Park East sections. The schedule beyond that is not yet known.

The Montgomery County town is part of what state officials believe is a $30 billion infrastructure problem for Pennsylvania. State Rep. Steve McCarter (D-Glenside) said "inner-rim suburbs" -- those bordering metropolitan areas like Philadelphia -- across the state face similarly dire situations.

"Nobody wants to talk about what’s underground and out of site," McCarter said. "But it’s going to cause a lot of consternation and disruption."

Bob Hoffman doing some landscaping at his brother's Ryers Avenue duplex, Tuesday, May 24, 2016. Brian X. McCrone/NBC10

Homeowners have taken to Facebook in recent weeks to begin venting their frustration -- and with hopes that a solution can be found to alleviate the four- and five-figure cost of full sewer lateral replacements.

A public hearing held last week gathered some 100 property owners, according to Debra Domsky of Woodland Avenue near Tookany Creek.

“How did it go from the EPA to the state DEP to the township and now into the homeowners’ laps?” she asked, sitting in the yard of the two-story attached house she bought 18 years ago.

“I’m lucky. You see the front of my house. It’s probably six feet from the street to my steps. But look at that home up the street, with the steep, tall wall in front. The homeowner, she’s freaking out. She’s a single mother too. That’s how I would have felt when I was younger, raising my son, barely getting by and trying to make it happen. It would have been devastating. It still is devastating.”

Like many others, Domsky is now grappling with questions about an infrastructure problem 90 years in the making. That’s how old the township said many of the sewer pipes are -- in many cases, made of a material called vitrified clay.

An ordinance to put the inspections in motion is expected to be voted on by the township council June 15, but the extent and history of Cheltenham’s sewer problem were aired in detail at a Public Works Committee meeting earlier this month.

Matt Chrobocinski, a sewer engineer with the firm Boucher & James, told of “the Township’s efforts to date to reduce Inflow & Infiltration (I&I) in the sanitary sewer system, why it needs to reduce I&I, and the importance of adopting a Private Sanitary Sewer Lateral Inspection, Maintenance and Repair ordinance,” according to the minutes of the meeting.

One of the township commissioners then "noted that the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) are requiring the Township to make significant and costly upgrades to its aging sanitary system in a tight time frame."

Havir, the township manager, said in an interview last week that the sewer I&I problem did not pop up suddenly. Instead, he said, the township has already spent millions over the better half of the last decade to improve system-wide performance.

"This has been in our corrective action plan since 2010," Havir said. "And the DEP is now asking we move this up under high priority. Basically telling us, we’re five years behind schedule."

A sign for Cheltenham Village on Central Avenue.

The first four neighborhoods to be inspected have the worst I&I performance based on rate estimates, he said.

Property owners in Cheltenham Village and Glenside who inspectors find in need of lateral replacements or repair will have 120 days to complete the improvements, according to the proposed ordinance. In the years ahead, repairs in other neighborhoods will have between 60 and 90 days.

McCarter believes those time frames could be adjusted as the township begins to tackle the inspections.

"I think they’ll be some adjustments in terms of time as we go along," he said.

Havir said the township has already begun improvements to the municipal system, but if it does cost another $8 million a year for "work being done in the public right-of-way as well as the inspection work," the township will have to issue bonds to pay for further improvements over the next decade.

"We don’t have that kind of money sitting around in the pot," Havir said.

Havir and other township officials have promised a fervent outreach program to educate property owners in the summer and fall months about the massive, decade-long project. The municipal website already has posted numerous documents as well as the proposed ordinance.

Realtor Roy Hollinger, of Barandon and Hollinger Real Estate in Cheltenham Village, said, “I guess I have to go to one of these (township) meetings coming up.”

His real estate company has been around since 1939, he said, nearly as old as the vitrified clay sewer pipes now in need of replacement.

“Only we’re not as decrepit,” he said.