What happens to homeowners who haven't paid a sewer bill in 16 years?
Nothing, if by some mistake no bills were ever sent.
That was the answer this week from the directors of the Capistrano Beach Sanitary District, thus ending a four-month-long scare for 33 condo owners in the 58-unit Old Mill Pond complex who feared they'd have to pay about $800 each in back sewer fees.
A fuss over sewer bills began last June, when one resident of the gate-guarded complex on Camino Capistrano who was paying about $272 a year for service compared notes with a neighbor, who hadn't paid a dime, according to Valerie Thomas, president of the homeowners association.
A little research showed that 25 of the homeowners had been paying for service and the remaining 33, including Thomas, "had a free ride all those years," she said.
Thomas, who has lived in the complex for five years, explained that, when she moved in, she assumed that sewer service was part of her $231 monthly association dues.
Not so, she and the others found out.
"We thought that fee certainly covered everything," said Jerry Howland, a Mill Pond resident and former school superintendent in Baldwin Park. "But, for some reason, the sewer district had neglected to bill everyone."
District Manager Benton C. Price said the condo project was built in 1977 and all the permits and connection fees were properly paid. But, for some reason, only 25 homes started getting sewer bills from the district.
"We can only speculate that the homes were built at separate times," said Price, whose tiny 65-year-old district provides sewer service to 3,962 customers in the Capistrano Beach area of Dana Point.
Immediately after a bill-paying homeowner alerted the district about the situation, the directors began researching their options, said Steven DeBaun, attorney for the district.
While he thought the district couldn't charge for all 16 years that bills weren't paid, the district did conclude that it could make each homeowner accountable for three years' worth of bills.
"It was our opinion that the district could go back and collect for three years," DeBaun said.
The thought of being charged for bills they never received touched off an uproar in the complex and homeowners descended on the small district office next to San Juan Creek.
"We realize we have to pay a sewer fee, all they have to do is bill us," said Howland, who has lived in the complex for two years without paying for sewer service.
Although a bill-paying resident had informed the district about the situation, it doesn't appear that those who paid were as upset as condo owners who faced a retroactive payment.
"No one feels any resentment," said Pat Berney, a 10-year resident who has been paying a sewer bill. "These people are innocent. We just feel something isn't right."
On Tuesday night, only three out of five board members attended a general meeting and voted unanimously to give up the idea of back billing. Instead, they agreed the district would begin sending statements immediately, dating back only to July 1, the start of the fiscal year.
"It was pretty much a consensus of why stir up this stuff, it was our fault to begin with," said Director Kenneth Lawrence Jr. "We should be embarrassed enough that it was never discovered."
Lawrence said he wouldn't even try to guess what went wrong in 1977.
"As long as they are willing to pay now, that's the way it should be. We don't need to go back and check," Lawrence said.