How to compel neighbor to unclog overflowing sewer (Seattle)
March 13, 2018 11:32 AM   Subscribe

TL;DR version: How do we compel a recalcitrant neighbor to address an overflowing sewer connected to a shared line in the city of Seattle. The city is not taking action despite clear and repeated evidence of a biological health hazard.

Four homes each have a private sewer line that joins the shared city line in the alley behind our homes. The neighbor who owns the most upstream of the 4 homes (let's call him Bad Neighbor or BN) has a severe situation of impacted waste, probably the result of years of derelicts and hoarders living in the building, that is causing his sewer to overflow waste into the alley (at least 3 times in the last few months, two of them documented by the City). All of the other homes have had their private lines scoped (at our own expense) and all are clean. The neighbor has been given notice by the city to professionally unclog the sewer but up until now he has only gotten day laborers to poke at it with sticks. The 3 good neighbors (we'll call them GN's) have been documenting all instances of overflow and all written conversations requesting BN to enlist a professional cleanup, to no effect. The city claimed they would reimburse GNs for the sewer scoping costs, but nothing has been seen on that front. In addition, the city said they would send GNs documentation of the case, which we requested, but no one has received anything. To complicate matters, BN is a verbally abusive bully and possibly a con-man, which all the neighbors are aware of.

Professionally but strongly worded emails are not making any dent in this situation. What recourse do we have to force this to be cleaned up, and to speak in a language of consequences impactful enough (financially/legally) that it will force BN to take action? There is no information on the SPU website about how to address neighbor disputes or whether a homeowner can be fined or vacated due to creating a health hazard. Some have suggested contacting our district councilperson, who is on the Public Utilities committee. Others have suggested contacting some media muckraker (pun only partly intended).

I'd really like to hear from people who have concrete experience or actual research of how to pursue this kind of situation, especially jurisdiction-specific.

[Anonymous because neighbor is potentially vindictive.]
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Some have suggested contacting our district councilperson, who is on the Public Utilities committee.

Definitely try this!
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:51 AM on March 13 [10 favorites]

Strongly worded emails mean nothing without follow-through consequences. If the city officials are dragging their feet, you need to apply a little (legal & ethical) pressure.

Time honored ways of doing so:

- Contacting your local city representative; this could be a district councilperson, alderman, etc.
- GNs could also consult with & pay an attorney to write a letter on GNs behalf to the city. Sometimes legal letterhead moves things along faster than a citizen's email.
- Bringing your concerns to a city council meeting or other public/govt forum. You'll probably need to get your item on the agenda ahead of time, so plan accordingly.
- Contacting a local reporter or station who airs government inefficiency segments, if one exists. Be forewarned that it could escalate matters with the neighbor in not so pleasant ways.
- The ultimate rank call is contacting your state representative's office and asking their aide for assistance.
posted by muirne81 at 11:54 AM on March 13 [4 favorites]

Yup, as a former municipal employee with some constituent affairs-adjacent experience, you definitely want someone from your District Councilperson's office calling the Dept of Public Works or whomever on your behalf.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 12:15 PM on March 13 [4 favorites]

Is there a neighbor that is still friendly or at least neutral to him?
Could you just all chip in, hire a drain cleaning service, get friendly neighbor to get BN to allow the drain service to come in, and just get it done?
In my area this is probably $500 or less and done in a couple hours. In my area tree roots are the frequent culprit.

It would save you lots of city admin headaches and I think it would solve the problem. Or at least that pro will be able to diagnose the problem if the normal cleaning isn’t effective. And the diagnosis could be passed along to the city.

But it will take some finesse to get that BN to let you in to clean it!
Good luck!
posted by littlewater at 12:38 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]

to speak in a language of consequences impactful enough (financially/legally) that it will force BN to take action?

lawsuit lawsuit bo bawsuit banana fana fo fawsuit fee fi mo mawsuit

Seriously, speak to an attorney about getting a court order to fix it + reimbursement for actual costs + compensation for the unpleasantness of having human shit all over your properties due to negligence + your attorney's fees and court costs + whatever.

In all likelihood this is small-claims level stuff that you wouldn't need much attorney time for
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 12:54 PM on March 13 [8 favorites]

(I mean, you know the asshole and we don't, but it strikes me that he's going to be vindictive at you whatever you do that isn't actually praising him for the wonderful gifts of human feces he presents you with periodically, so you might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb)
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 12:56 PM on March 13 [4 favorites]

At least in my jurisdiction you can't get injunctive relief ("a court order to fix it" as opposed to money damages) in small claims. Sounds like it's the same in Seattle: "recovery of money only."

The suggestion of littlewater (eponysterical) might be the least painful .
posted by exogenous at 2:12 PM on March 13

I second trying to let him let you guys pay to fix it. Angry people love mean, legal, threatening letters. It lets them get more angrier and feel even more righteous and dig their heels in deeper/ignore you/see you as pests.

I think the position behind your question, "How can we, the good people, force this bad person to do what we want?" kind of sets you up to fail.

Another way to look at it would be "How can we get the impacted sewer situation resolved with the least stress and cost." It may be that a legal letter and pushing at him that way is the answer; I don't know. But getting people to do something they don't want to do is really hard and I think any breath you can bring into the situation will help.

And I'm not saying the guy's not a total douche. I'm just saying what is the goal.
posted by orsonet at 4:33 PM on March 13 [5 favorites]

One other thought.
If you found a sympathetic, and rule-bending drain cleaning servicer, perhaps you could give them access through one of the neighbor homes’ cleanouts and the drain cleaner could go around the corner and accidentally clean out BN’s line too. Totally accidentally. Magically.
BN would never know.
It’s all private lines so .... I mean who even knows where each line ends and another begins anyhow?
posted by littlewater at 7:59 PM on March 13

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