French Ranch Woes and Misdeeds Continue
By Louis Nuyens
Sometime during recent heavy rains the French Ranch property in San Geronimo Valley experienced a soil slide on a slope below its septic system's main leach field.
In general, the site is exhibiting classic symptoms of septic problems: excess water mounding; slope failure; saturated soils; and, recently, a very high nitrates test result, indicating potentially inadequate processing of effluent.
With a third of the units yet to be attached to the septic system, the slide adds to questions about the suitability of the system for handling the demand it is meant to serve.
Since March of 2002, the Marin County Environmental Health Services department (EHS) has received at least three documented complaints from citizens who noticed the poor conditions, and construction work being done on the main French Ranch leach field. In each instance, the developers, Bruce Berman's Jazz Construction - and their septic engineer, Questa Engineering - failed to obtain proper repair permits and, in fact, failed in their duty to notify EHS and the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) staff of any problems, as well as of repair construction.
In response to the March 2002 complaint, EHS sent two letters to Jazz and Questa requesting "as-builts" (after the fact construction plans) and a 3rd party engineer's report, by Nute Engineering, for any unpermitted construction modifications; to date, EHS has received neither of these. The last inspection report for the project was in November 2000, and outlined over a dozen elements needing subsequent inspection. The French Ranch development continues construction of homes and has added septic hookups in two areas of the subdivision, and has not filed inspection reports as required by their septic system operating permit. Typically, any one of these types of failures on the part of the developer might mean suspension of the operating permit until the required documents had been provided.
Indications of Septic Problems
Due to the lack of up-to-date plans and engineering reports, it would take EHS and Regional Board staff some time to determine the potential cause of the leachfield woes. No one aside from Jazz and Questa really knows what is in the ground, how it is functioning, or if it was properly constructed. Responsible septic engineers know to pay attention to slope failures and saturated soils, especially below leachfield areas; they are strong indications that a reevaluation of system operations is warranted. Because of its physical proximity to a public golf course and public trail easement, the French Ranch leachfield has the potential to impact public health if it is not operating properly. These early warning signs are of even greater concern, because only two-thirds of the houses to be hooked up to the septic system are currently online, and the remaining nine houses are the largest in the subdivision, four to five bedrooms each.
Of the four down-slope groundwater monitoring wells, the sole well sampled by Questa on 12 December 2002 showed nitrate concentrations that were unusually high. Questa's report to the RWQCB attributes the high nitrate level to the golf course's green management practices and their use of fertilizers. However, when contacted, the Superintendent of the San Geronimo Golf Course said that the monitoring wells are entirely on French Ranch property, and that no golf-course fertilizer has been used within 20 feet of sample site… for the past three years. The monitoring well is significantly upslope, and away from the active area of the golf course.
More sampling, including the three other groundwater wells in that area, testing of the unpermitted drainage system below the leachfield (which may be discharging onto the golf course), and sampling from within the leachfield itself, will be necessary for a proper diagnosis of the nitrate problem, and to determine whether it corroborates indications of septic system problems.
In another area of the golf course, an investigation is just beginning to determine if the septic force main from the French Ranch sand-filter to the leachfields is leaking. An area directly above the septic main pipeline is wet year round, even in the driest of summer months, and has created a small "septic marsh." The golf course has determined that there is no other water source in the immediate area.
Near Sir Francis Drake Blvd., there is a little shack with a red alert light to show when the system is in failure. In previous years, the light came on with alarming frequency during wet conditions. Some said it was in need of repair; others say that it worked just fine and the only 'repair' performed was to make it not work.
Public Health Protections Suffer from Political Favoritism
The County Public Works department issued the original construction permit for the French Ranch septic system. This was apparently a maneuver, taken to bypass the EHS, due to the refusal of EHS to sign off on the septic system proposal, which EHS concluded was unacceptable due to conflicts with County and State Environmental Health codes. So it was quietly passed to the Public Works director, who put his signature on the permit, signing off on septic system construction cloaked in a permit for grading and excavation. The curious thing is that septic system construction requires a health permit, and the Public Works Department has no authority to issue health permits of any kind: that right is granted only to certified public health officers, as designated by the State Department of Health Services. The most probable conclusion is that French Ranch septic construction permit was illegally issued, and remains in violation of the law, to this day.
It is worth noting that Questa Engineering, which designed and built the system, is also functioning as the contractor responsible for monitoring that system. If serious problems emerge, what are the chances that Questa will indict itself for poor design?
Also worth noting that west Marin Supervisor Steve Kinsey -- who worked on the project before and after coming into public office, propagandizing for the project and bending County policy to enable the project -- drives by the project nearly every day. One might imagine that he would take a special interest in making sure the project proceeded properly, and yet the project has repeatedly failed to adhere to the same environmental and public safety standards that apply to its neighbors, with minimal oversight by the County.
At some point, Bruce Berman and Jazz Construction, perhaps even Questa Engineering, will waltz away from French Ranch, leaving the French Ranch Homeowners Association (FRHOA) alone as the responsible party for their septic system. French Ranch homeowners might want to think hard on the possibility that they may soon be left holding the bag for any shoddy work and regulatory transgressions. If there are flaws in the septic system, the FRHOA might end up having to pursue legal recourses to protect itself from any associated liabilities.
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