NEWPORT — Michael Courtney and Annie Thorp, owners of a home on Northeast 11th Street in Newport, never suspected when they bought their house in July that they were buying something serviced by a decades-old sewer line that, for years, has been leaking sewage under the street until there was nowhere else for it to go.
That’s when the raw sewage started backing up into the couple’s bathtub and shower. The toilets no longer flushed in their home. Neighbors, they said, complained of similar problems on the quiet street full of homes built in the middle of the 20th century.
“We started having plumbing problems in September,” said Courtney. “We had a guy come in and clean the drains as far as he could, which seemed to work. Then about six weeks later, it started all over again.”
A different plumber came out to inspect the sewer system at the couple’s house, wiring a camera down through the pipes. They then said the problem was discovered to stem from the sewer main, located under the middle of the street, although city officials said the problem was a faulty lateral line that connects from the sewer main to the couple’s house.
“If the failure was in the public sewer main, it would be our responsibility,” said City Manager Spencer Nebel. “But this is the lateral line. It’s the property owner’s responsibility for the lateral line to the sewer.”
Courtney and Thorp said they heard differently. They were told the problem was the sewer main, and that city officials voted three years ago to transfer ownership of the city-owned sewer main to the ownership of the homeowners on 11th Street.
“The city voted that everything down to the main line is now the homeowners,” Courtney said.
Thorp added, “That used to not be the case.”
The city would not have done something like that, Nebel said.
“I’ve been here six years, and we haven’t transferred ownership of sewer mains to anyone,” he said.
Courtney estimates the sewer main was installed under Northeast 11th Street sometime in the 1950s, when his home in Newport was built. More than 60 years on, with the aging system failing, Courtney and Thorp are upset the city isn’t taking responsibility for the sewer line and leaving the couple — and possibly their neighbors — to foot the bill. City workers did go out to the site of the sewer main this week to direct the contractor’s work, the couple said.
“This is the city’s infrastructure, not ours,” Thorp said. “It seems incredibly unfair that we’re expected to pay for it.”
A contractor came out Wednesday morning to dig up the sewer main and diagnose the problem and either repair or replace that main. With a big hole in the street, the couple fears the city could put a lien on their home if they don’t pay the cost of the demolition in the street and the contractor’s labor. The couple said the raw sewage seeping out of the sewer main forged a huge hole under the street that was there for years before they even bought their house.
The couple said a home inspection when they bought their house found no dysfunction in the water or sewer lines or any other facet of their property.
“We don’t know who knew what,” said Thorp when asked if her and Courtney’s title company should have known about the issue and told them. “When you buy a house, there’s a disclosure statement. There’s a three-page document for if there’s been problems with the roof, the plumbing, whatever. There was nothing indicated, so if the former owners knew, then they could be liable.”
The former homeowners never acknowledged any problems with the sewer system when Courtney and Thorp bought the house, the couple said. They expressed disbelief that this wasn’t an issue before the house was put up for sale in June.
“They did not disclose any problems,” Courtney said. “To think that nobody’s had problems here previously is really hard to believe.”