Frustrated Town Council may revisit existing ordinance

By Don Nelson

Relationships between the town of Winthrop and its residents whose water pipes are frozen didn’t thaw out much at last week’s Town Council meeting.

Residents and business owners are still frustrated that their water service is disrupted — perhaps until spring. The town’s ability to help them is still limited by a combination of town ordinance, state law, lack of equipment and the fact that nearly every frozen water service presents a different set of challenges.

Some affected water customers and other residents who feel like the town has been giving them the cold shoulder spoke out at last week’s meeting.

Brian Sweet, co-owner of Cascades Outdoor Store (whose water is working), said that some water services that were hooked up decades ago may be enormously expensive to repair. “Sometimes it’s out of our hands,” Sweet said.

Melinda Bourn, who brought up her complaint about the frozen water service to her home and insurance business next to the Chewuch River bridge at an earlier council meeting, was back last week to again urge that the town be involved in helping with the frozen lines. “I don’t know why it’s my responsibility,” she said.

Dave Swenson, co-owner of the Wine Shed on Riverside Avenue, said his business has no water service and he has had to cancel a couple of wine tastings. Swenson estimated his lost income at $500 for each tasting.

Lance Ryder, owner of The Outdoorsman on Riverside Avenue (which has water service), said there are practical systems (including so-called “hot boxes” that send an electric current through metal water lines to thaw them), and urged the council to consider buying such equipment. “It would be pretty handy right now,” he said.

Doug Mohre, owner of Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe at the four-way intersection, doesn’t have water service to his business either, he said — which is less-burdensome for him because the business is closed for the winter, but still has to be repaired.

“We’ve been frozen in the past, but nothing like this,” Mohre said. He said the connection from the water main to his water service is not buried deep enough to prevent freezing in super-cold conditions.

He, too, urged the town to be involved in restoring water service. “Common sense is not prevailing here,” he said.

Common sense or not, Mayor Anne Acheson reiterated that the town’s legal situation puts it a bind when it comes to repairing damaged lines or restoring water service if such work can be construed at a “gift of public funds” — which is forbidden under state law.

The town’s water mains are not affected. It’s service connections from the mains to exterior water meters, or to water meters inside buildings, that are suffering. Acheson said that 28 connections had been affected at one point, but many of them were back in service.

Owners’ responsibility

Winthrop officials are sympathetic, but point to a town ordinance that makes maintenance of water service lines the owners’ responsibility.

At last week’s council meeting, Acheson said she had talked to the town’s attorneys to clarify the town’s liability for damages — which only covers water meters, she said.

Acheson said the town may give water uses whose service was interrupted a credit towards future water bills.

It’s up to the council to decided if it wants to consider revising the applicable ordinance, Acheson said, but the mayor said she wants to see an estimate of how much it would have cost the town to do all the necessary water line repairs this winter. Town officials need to know the potential costs, she said.

Because the water system is supported by a separate fund in the town’s budget, any money for additional service or repairs would have to come out of water rates the town charges residents and businesses, she said.

Even with a revised ordinance, Acheson said, the town would be limited to conducting maintenance on the water lines, to avoid coming up against the “gift of services” prohibition.

Several council members expressed frustration at the limits on the town’s ability to help its citizens, criticizing the ordinance (which was adopted in 1993).

Public Works Director Rick Karro told the council that most of the frozen lines are older installations, some dating back many decades. Some of those lines freeze regularly, he said. Most newer installations aren’t freezing, Karro said.

“Occasionally a meter will freeze, but we can fix that,” Karro said. But he repeated that “we can’t go on private property to work.”

Council member Mike Strulic suggested that the town purchase one or two “hot boxes” — estimated to cost about $900 each — and loan them people. That would be a “gift of public funds,” Acheson said. Public funds can only be used in extreme situations such as emergencies that affect a wide area, or when the town’s efforts can be construed to benefit everyone in Winthrop.

“I can’t understand why we can’t do something to help people,” Strulic said. But the “hot box” proposal did not draw support from the other council members.

Acheson said the town needs to a better job of letting residents know earlier in the fall that they need to keep water running in a faucet or toilet when temperatures plunge to prevent freezing lines.

In an interview after the council meeting, Acheson said it would be necessary to address the “point of ownership question” in any revision of the town’s ordinances. “It’s not always a clear delineation,” she said.

In other business at last week’s meeting, the council:

  • Agreed to hold a retreat to discuss major issues facing the town on Feb. 16 from noon-4 p.m. in the Henhouse room at the Winthrop Barn. The session is open to the public.
  • Learned that Winthrop has been awarded a $250,000 Complete Streets grant from the Washington Transportation Improvement Board, to be used for transportation-related projects in the town.
  • Received a recommendation from the Winthrop Planning Commission to adopt a revision to the town’s ordinance defining overnight rentals. The proposed amendment reads: “Overnight/transient rentals means the rental of an approved dwelling unit for periods of less than 30 contiguous calendar days. Overnight/transient rentals are considered commercial rather than residential uses and must be approved and licenses accordingly.” The council will set a public hearing date for the proposed amendment.