The Smell of Unrest : Proposal for Poway Reclamation Plant Spurs Retiree to Fight Back


Leo Verguson figures that fate must have been behind the wheel of the car one afternoon last spring when he and his wife were driving back from San Diego to their home in inland North County.

Traffic thickened as Marjorie Verguson turned off Interstate 5 onto Poway Road, and she was unable to merge into the left-turn lane to Sabre Springs Parkway. So, she turned right instead, planning to make a U-turn and correct her course.

Then they saw the sign on a street just south of Poway Road. It read: “Future Site of the City of Poway Water Reclamation Facility.”

Since that day, 77-year-old Leo Verguson has gone from relaxed retiree to a 10- and 12-hour-a-day worker, driven by the knowledge that the neighboring city of Poway is planning to build a sewage plant in his San Diego neighborhood of Sabre Springs.


Not a soul that he could find in his community knew anything about the proposed $30-million facility, although Poway had been planning it for more than a decade. Apparently the invisible boundary between the two cities was a wall of silence.

“There was not a word in the papers we received when we bought the house,” a breezy hillside home overlooking the valley where the proposed water reclamation plant is planned, Verguson said. “But if we ever sell, then we will have to disclose the fact that the sewage plant is down there.”

Verguson’s complaints are many. Odors from the plant and potential accidents that could send up a cloud of deadly chlorine gas top the list.

Property values will drop with the advent of the plant, he contends. The facility is scheduled to go into operation in late 1995, the first of a series of water reclamation facilities scattered throughout the city of San Diego.


Whether you call it a sewage plant or a reclamation plant, Verguson said, by any name, it will smell.

The day after he spotted the sign, he was on the phone to Poway city officials; within days he was in Poway City Hall, digging out records and asking questions that only an engineer could ask. Verguson was in the aerospace industry for 35 years until his retirement in 1988.

What Verguson learned dismayed him even more. The water reclamation plant advertised on the sign was still in the planning stages, but Poway city engineers were completing plans for construction of a “flow basin,” a sewage holding tank that would allow Poway to increase its sewage capacity by timing flows into the Metropolitan Sewer System.

The seemingly innocuous holding tank was planned for the same site as the water reclamation plant--right in his Sabre Springs community--a fact that Verguson found alarming. It seemed like a ploy to establish the site for sewage treatment use by putting a less objectionable sewage facility on the site first, Verguson reasoned.


The site for both these sewer projects, a half-mile east of Interstate 15 and about four blocks south of Poway Road, was the site of a sewage treatment plant that was closed in 1972 when the Poway area joined the Metro system and began sending its sewage to the Point Loma plant for treatment.

“If this thing goes through, what next?” he asked, his face flushing with the emotion of his crusade. “We could become the dumping ground for everything bad in North County--more and bigger sewage plants, an incinerator, recycling centers, migrant housing, whatever kind of trash that comes along.

“Why didn’t you notify us?” Verguson demanded of the Poway city staffers. “Why weren’t we told of this?”

The answer was that the city is required to notify only residents within a 300-foot (one-block) distance from the proposed project and no one lived within that area. Verguson and his neighbors live nearly a mile away.


“They could not explain to me why they were putting that plant in the middle of our community,” Verguson said of Poway city officials. “If they want a sewage holding tank, or a sewage plant, then let them put it in their own community. Or, if not, there is plenty of vacant land to the east of Poway where it could go.”

The Vergusons bought their home in 1986 but didn’t move into the Sabre Springs community until 1988. There are now about 1,000 homes built in the San Diego suburb, and, when it is completed, Sabre Springs will have nearly 5,300 homes and more than 12,000 residents, all within a mile or two of the Poway water reclamation plant.

The plant will treat sewage to produce non-potable water to be used for irrigating landscaping along I-15, keeping three local golf courses green, and for a dozen other purposes. The sale of the reclaimed water would pay for operating the plant.

During May and June, Verguson marshaled an impressive file of data on Poway’s sewer capacity problems and its plans to solve them in Sabre Springs. He tried to sound the alarm to the about 2,000 other residents of Sabre Springs by circulating 850 flyers door-to-door and by speaking at homeowner groups and community meetings.


He capped off his efforts with a petition signature campaign, garnering 674 names of Sabre Springs residents opposing any Poway plans to palm off their city’s sewage on their San Diego suburb.

When the Poway City Council announced an Aug. 13 public hearing on the sewage holding tank proposal, Verguson was ready. Armed with his petitions and strengthened by 60 Sabre Springs supporters, he planned to tell Poway officials exactly what they could not do with their sewage.

Poway Mayor Jan Goldsmith took a look at the stack of opponents’ speaker slips on the issue; the council heard reports on the holding tank, then voted unanimously to table the project. Verguson had won without saying a word.

Instead of being overjoyed with his victory, Verguson remained angry and unconvinced that the Poway council will not revive the project while his back is turned.


Goldsmith said that Sabre Springs residents were not slighted at the Poway council hearing. The stack of opposition slips played no part in the council decision to kill the sewage holding tank project, the Poway mayor stressed.

“Our council received a late report from San Diego city staff identifying better and less expensive techniques for increasing (Poway’s) sewage capacity,” Goldsmith explained. “The project is dead.”

About his decision to close the hearing before allowing the Sabre Springs residents their say, Goldsmith explained that “they were opposing the proposed water reclamation plant. That issue was not on our agenda. When it is, they will be given notice.”

Goldsmith said the water reclamation plant is a joint effort of the two cities--San Diego and Poway--and its site within the Sabre Springs suburb is proper because the plant will process sewage from both cities and provide reclaimed non-potable water to both cities.


“I live near the boundary line,” Goldsmith said, “and I know how important it is to be good neighbors with San Diego.”

As the frustrated Verguson and his Sabre Springs supporters vented their wrath outside the Poway City Council chambers after the aborted sewer project hearing, San Diego City Councilman Tom Behr was among the listeners. Behr, elected to the post in April to replace recalled Councilwoman Linda Bernhardt, realized that this angry throng was made up of his constituents, and that their problems were his problems.

Behr has since organized a seven-member committee to study the problem, and Verguson is a vocal participant. Behr also has been instrumental in scheduling a Sept. 26 public meeting in the heart of the Sabre Springs community to examine the facts of the controversial issue and perhaps find a compromise that all could live with.

“I don’t have the answers yet,” Behr admitted. One possible compromise is the selection of an alternate site, he said.


Verguson also faults Pardee Construction Co., developer of Sabre Springs, for failing to notify home buyers of the presence of the sewage plant site.

Mike Madigan, senior vice president of Pardee Development Corp., said the company has been aware of the water reclamation plant site within Sabre Springs since the subdivision was planned in the early 1980s.

The site, which belongs to the city of Poway, is shown on the 1982 Sabre Springs community plan, Madigan said, but, until the past two or three years, the water reclamation project has been no more than a glint in some engineer’s eye.

Since Poway began seriously planning the water reclamation facility in 1989, affected buyers in the immediate area around the plant site have been given notice, which they must sign as part of the sales transaction, he explained.


Madigan said he did not know whether similar notices had been given to buyers in Montecito or other Sabre Springs neighborhoods north of Poway Road, but he said that he doubted that residents there would be affected in any way.

State disclosure laws require real estate salespeople to disclose to potential buyers any present or future project that could adversely affect their property. Failure to do this can lead to investigation and penalties, including revocation of a sales license, according to the state Real Estate Department.

However, the state disclosure laws do not specify how large an area must be notified about potential problems, according to Brenda Davis, duty deputy in the department’s Los Angeles office.

“I would think that with a sewage plant, disclosure should be made up to a half-mile to a mile,” Davis said. “It would not be unreasonable to expect notice up to 2 miles of such a facility.”


All of Sabre Springs present development is within 1.5 miles of the water reclamation plant site.

Steve McGill, executive vice president of McMillan Communities, said his company believes in overkill when it comes to disclosure. McMillan will be building hundreds of homes to the south of the Poway plant site within the next few years, and the company will go the extra mile to notify everyone of the sewage plans, McGill said.

“It’s sometimes a hard call to know what ought to be disclosed, but we tend to err on the side of disclosing too much,” he said.

Verguson scoffed at disclosure notices given to La Cresta condominium owners, a Pardee development which is within 500 feet of the plant site.


“You have to read way down in the notice to find the word ‘sewage’ at all,” he said. When one woman inquired where the water would come from for the water reclamation facility to process, she was told it would come from nearby Penasquitos Creek, Verguson said. When he asked the same question, a saleswoman told him that the water to be processed was “gray water” from sinks, bathtubs and washing machines, Verguson said.

The irate homeowner recently took an admittedly unscientific poll of area real estate salespeople. Eight of them replied to hypothetical questions about the impact of a sewage plant on nearby real estate values. The consensus was that property values would drop from 25% to 44%, “depending on how bad the smell was.”

Poway City Engineer Mark Weston can sympathize with Verguson’s fears about sewage smells but he is convinced that this water reclamation facility will reflect the state of the art--odorless, noiseless, and practically invisible behind a heavy screen of plantings.

“We have built in mitigations far beyond anything that is required by the state and federal governments,” Weston said.


There will be no potential for odor because all treatment areas will be covered, he said. The plant site will be landscaped so that it will not appear objectionable to neighbors, and all noisy equipment will be placed in buildings or underground.

“We have never tried to hide the fact that we are reclaiming waste water,” Weston said, avoiding the word “sewage.”

“In fact, we are proud of this facility.”

But Verguson is marshaling his forces again to oppose the project and is convinced that, if he loses the fight, he will be reminded daily of his defeat.


“Every evening about 5 o’clock, a breeze springs up from the south and blows through our back windows. If I lose this fight, every evening after that sewer plant goes in, I’ll smell the odor of defeat,” he said.