As Hilton Head begins the final year of a five-year project to connect islanders using septic tanks to a modern sewer system, the majority of those who are eligible to tie into the system haven’t.
Some of them say the $6,000 connection fee is beyond their means.
Rochelle Williams, a native islander and former mayoral candidate, is one of them. She said her septic tank backs up into her yard every time it rains.
But Williams said she can’t afford to pay the connection fee even though the main line has been laid in her Sam Fraizer Retreat neighborhood.
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Her taxes, she said, are “already high now and we can’t afford to pay them.”
When asked about the connection fee, Hilton Head Town Council member Marc Grant, who represents the ward where many sewer extensions are taking place, said he understands the strain.
“Yeah, I mean I think everybody has talked about that,” Grant said of the fee. “They’ve already invested thousands in a septic tank.”
Where the project stands now
Of the 366 properties the project targeted for connection, a total of 229 now have access to the sewer system, said Pete Nardi, project manager and Hilton Head’s public service district director.
But as the final year of the project begins, he said only 90 have tied into the system.
Despite that low connection number, Nardi called the ongoing project a success, calling the 25.6 percent connection rate “incredible” and “very encouraging.”
Grant had a different characterization.
“It’s not where we want to be, but I think people will come around to it and accept it,” he said of future connections.
Public service officials have called the project “preventative” because state law prohibits new septic tanks from being installed as well repair work on existing systems when public sewer access is available.
“Our experience is that people are usually brought to connection when they have a plumbing issue,” Nardi said.
Public sewer main access has been installed on 45 of the 58 targeted roads in three years, and Nardi said the project should be complete by the end of 2019.
Accessing the properties to install the sewer line isn’t always easy, he said. Since many properties on the connection list are heirs property — plots passed down without a written will to several owners — contacting all the property owners before installing pipes can be time-consuming.
As for the cost, Nardi said “they don’t owe anything up front. It can be financed or they can be grant-eligible.”
Council OKs final funding
The project was originally expected to cost $3.6 million, but will finish with a price tag — $8.4 million — that is more than twice that.
That’s because council approved the project’s cost estimate in 2015 without putting out a request for bids, Nardi said.
Sewer access expansion is being funded by bonds from the Town of Hilton Head, town manager Steve Riley said Tuesday. Those bonds are funded by property taxes, he said.
On Tuesday, Town Council approved a $3.3 million bond that will finish funding the extension project.
“Once we get the infrastructure done, we can work with the water commission and Pete (Nardi) to figure out how we can encourage more people to get hooked up,” Grant said.
Help with the connection fee
One local organization is trying to mitigate the cost of tapping into the sewer line.
Project “Sewer Access for Everyone,” a fund within of the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, works to help property owners pay the tap fees that sometimes stand between them and a sewer hook up.
The initiative’s website says it’s $450,000 from its $3 million goal, which it says will “connect hundreds of low-income homes to the public sewer system, eliminating the septic systems that are failing us all.”
So far, the project has helped connect 162 families to sewer access, Jean Heyduck, the vice president of marketing for the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, told The Island Packet.
“We have 24 additional families that are approved and will be connected after the lines are put down in their neighborhoods,” Heyduck said.
There are other options for getting help with the fee.
Nardi said the fee can be added onto property taxes and paid off over several years.
Residents looking to apply for grants to cover sewer connection costs can download the application from the public service district’s website.