Two boys who had the day off from school due to a storm trudge through the water on Mission Street at Russia Avenue. (Mike Koozmin/2014 SF Examiner file photo)

SF to pay homeowners nearly $4.4M in settlements over raw sewage flooding

San Francisco is planning to pay nearly $4.4 million to partially settle a lawsuit over flooding that occurs in neighborhoods like Mission Terrace when The City’s aging sewage system overflows during rainstorms.

The multimillion-dollar figure, made up of 19 individual settlement agreements that will be introduced to the Board of Supervisors for approval Tuesday, is expected to resolve claims from homeowners who say their property values have been diminished by persistent flooding.

The homeowners made an “inverse condemnation” claim, arguing that they were entitled to compensation for suffering damages at the expense of San Francisco providing services to the rest of The City.

The figure does not include similar claims from impacted businesses that have yet to be resolved under the lawsuit, costs such as attorneys fees or an estimated $1 million that The City already paid in property damages as a result of the litigation, according to an attorney for the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit centered around a pair of rainstorms that backed up the sewer system in December 2014, diverting water and raw sewage into homes and businesses along Cayuga Avenue, Folsom Street and other low-lying areas.

But the flooding has been an issue for years.

Unlike in most cities, raw sewage and storm runoff both flow into the same system in San Francisco. That system can reach capacity during the rainy season, causing a mixture of water and raw sewage to flow onto city streets and into homes, garages and businesses.

“Because this is contaminated sewage water, everything including the Sheetrock has to be ripped out and thrown out,” said Mark W. Epstein, an attorney for the plaintiffs from the law firm Seiler Epstein. “Everything has to be reconstructed.”

The problem is not only costly for homeowners but The City, which has regularly paid out settlements over the system backing up and flooding properties.

Neither the City Attorney’s Office or the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission responded to requests for comment.

Epstein acknowledged that The City has made efforts to address the problem.

Last February, the Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance requiring owners selling a property to disclose to a buyer when it is located within a “flood risk zone.” The ordinance also applies to landlords renting flood-prone properties to tenants.

The SFPUC also deploys temporary flood barriers to low-lying areas when heavier rain is in the forecast and encourages residents to help clear storm drains under its “Adopt a Drain” program, the San Francisco Examiner previously reported.

It has even considered buying the properties most impacted by flooding and provided grants to help property owners protect against flooding.

While The City has also dedicated hundreds of millions in funding to improve sewer infrastructure in the coming years, it would have to spend billions to improve the system to withstand larger storms, the Examiner previously reported.

“The City has to keep paying these damages unless it can fix the system so that this doesn’t happen anymore,” Epstein said. “The problem with fixing the system so that it doesn’t happen anymore is that we’ve got this antiquated mixed sewage system that would literally cost $1 billion-plus to reconfigure, reconstruct and hopefully stop the problem.”

He argued that The City should buy the existing properties and build housing capable of avoiding damage if the sewage system overflows.

“I think unfortunately this is a process that is going to repeat unless The City brings in some innovative thinkers and considers actually condemning these areas,” he said.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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