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Flushing out responsibility for Gloucester Township sewage backups

Tanya Brown isn't caught off guard anymore. When raw sewage comes up through the toilet and floods what used to be the family room of her Gloucester Township townhouse, Brown and her teenage daughter, Amanda Baird, spring into action.

Tanya Brown isn't caught off guard anymore.

When raw sewage comes up through the toilet and floods what used to be the family room of her Gloucester Township townhouse, Brown and her teenage daughter, Amanda Baird, spring into action.

First they put on their version of hazmat gear: plastic shopping bags on their shoes, and old turtlenecks and loose fabric around their mouths and noses. Then they break out the bleach and the spare patches of carpet they keep on hand to replace damaged sections.

"At first I thought, 'What did the kids put down there?' " Brown said. "It would make anyone sick to their stomach."

Brown, a 51-year-old legal secretary who moved into the Terrestria development 13 years ago, now finds herself caught in a dispute between the homeowners association and a local authority over who is responsible for the sewage system there.

It wasn't what Brown expected when she bought her home in the 1970s-era development of quaint Tudor and Spanish-style townhouses in a wooded section of the township.

The question of ownership arose in 2006 after the collapse of one of the development's sewer mains, which the Gloucester Township Municipal Utilities Authority fixed. Soon after, the utility informed the homeowners association it had a private sewage system and was in violation of state law in not employing a licensed operator to run it.

After two years of legal back and forth, the township stepped in and paid the GTMUA to clean and map Terrestria's system. But after equipment was blocked by tree roots that had infiltrated the mains and likely caused the backups, utility officials said they would not proceed unless the homeowners association agreed to be held financially accountable if a main collapsed or equipment became trapped. That led to a two-year stalemate.

"For 30 years they never asked us who our sewage operator was," said Anthony Merendino, treasurer of the Terrestria Homeowners Association. "The homeowners association isn't going to sign anything that would indicate we own the lines."

While unlikely to be approved today, the establishment of private sewage systems was not uncommon in New Jersey when Terrestria was built, said Andrew Kricun, chief engineer of the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority.

"I haven't seen a new one in quite a while," he said. "Naturally, the question is who is financially responsible for maintenance and repairs when things go wrong."

Since 2006, seven or eight of the development's more than 400 homes have experienced backups, Merendino said.

The question of ownership is complicated by the fact that the township has been unable to find the original permits for the development, which should spell out who is responsible for maintaining the sewers.

"I wouldn't say it's lost," said Tom Cardis, Gloucester Township administrator. "But it's a 30-, 35-year-old document. It might take some time, but we should be able to find it."

In 2008, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection wrote that its records indicated the homeowners association owned the system. But Merendino said that ruling had been based on a permit that applied to another development by the same builder, Canetic Corp., a defunct company once owned by prominent South Jersey developer John Canuso.

Canuso did not return a phone call seeking comment.

There is some glimmer of hope after a July 23 meeting between Mayor David Mayer and the GTMUA, at which officials agreed to continue mapping Terrestria's sewers without a waiver from the homeowners association.

"We can look for documents all day long, but it doesn't help these residents," Mayer said. "We can't figure out the problem until we get the cameras in there."

But the question remains: Who will pay to repair or replace the lines?

President Jason Cocco said the homeowners association would not be able to pay for repairs and upkeep of the system. Residents pay $112 a month in dues to have their gutters cleaned and lawns mowed, and to keep up the swimming pool and tennis courts.

"With the economy the way it is, a lot of people aren't paying their dues already," Cocco said. "We're not set up to take on something like this."

Despite moving ahead with mapping, the GTMUA maintains the association owns the lines.

"They could sue. We could sue. But that's not going to solve anything," said Howard Long, the attorney for the utility. "We've been trying to bend over and help these folks."

After years of this, Brown can't help but laugh sometimes.

She used to work in politics and sees the situation as a typical case of no one willing to take responsibility for what undoubtedly is going to be a costly fix.

She has given up using the family room, and she keeps going to Township Council meetings and telling anybody who will listen about her plight.

"It's no fun coming home day to day and wondering what you're going to find coming out of your toilet," Brown said. "I want to let them know I'm not going away."