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High bills, hard times at Berryessa Estates
Chelene Verbera holds her son, Sebastian, as he washes his hands before dinner at their home in Lake Berryessa Estates, Wednesday Oct. 25, 2006. Since a water bond forced skyrocketing utilities bills in 2006, many residents’ problems have only worsened as the water district tries to pay for upgrades to its facilities. Register file photo

Residents of a remote subdivision near Lake Berryessa are facing bruising financial decisions as the result of high water bills, costly assessments to improve a water treatment facility and the struggling economy.

Hana and Gilbert Abella, who moved to Berryessa Estates four years ago, are struggling to pay their water and sewer payments, property taxes and ballooning mortgage.

“We hurt. We hurt,” Hana Abella said last week, as she cleared her front yard in the residential area along Putah Creek at the edge of Pope Valley.

The Abellas, both of whom work for Pacific Union College, said they may simply throw in the towel a few months from now and let their house fall into foreclosure.

“In our case, the American dream has become an American nightmare,” Gilbert Abella said.

They are not alone.

Down the hill, Lance and Mary Paolazzi have paid their mortgage, property taxes and assessments, but may have their water and sewer service shut off if they are unable to pay about $2,555 to the Lake Berryessa Resort Improvement District, which provides drinking water and wastewater treatment to the area known as Berryessa Estates.

“I don’t know what to do,” Mary Paolazzi said.

Lance Paolazzi, a winemaker in St. Helena, said he wished he had never moved to Berryessa Estates from Napa nine years ago.

“Had we have known, we would have never come out here,” he said.

As residents struggle to pay their bills, local officials who run the Lake Berryessa Resort Improvement District are wondering how to continue to pay the agency’s bills.

That includes bi-annual payments on $5.2 million worth of bonds the district sold last year to finance improvements on failing water and sewer treatment plants the district has run since the mid-1960s.

Property owners in the area agreed in 2007 to pay into a fund to replace the aging facilities. But as of early August, more than 10 percent of property owners were behind in their payments.

That means the owners of 40 parcels, including just seven that have been developed, face possible foreclosure proceedings after Oct. 1, according to Napa County Auditor-Controller Pam Kindig. County officials, who have oversight of LBRID, are seeking solutions short of pursuing what is known as judicial foreclosure against property owners who are behind on their LBRID assessments.

One is to encourage property owners to pay the LBRID assessments first to avoid the risk of foreclosure, and then address their property tax payments. Kindig said that while the law requires LBRID to take action over delinquent assessments soon after an Oct. 1 payment deadline, authorities sometimes take years to move on property owners who are delinquent on their property tax bills.

Meanwhile, this week LBRID was forced to dip into its reserves for $24,000 to make a $185,000 payment on the bonds, money that was to come from property owners.

In a bind over bonds

The district encompasses 181 developed lots.

Under the $5.2 million bond measure, which property owners approved in April of 2007, each parcel is assessed $15,000 over 30 years. The property owners approved the assessment in part to lower their extraordinary water and sewer bills. LBRID wanted to see the changes because conditions at the sewage treatment facility have been found in violation of state clean water laws.

The repairs and improvements, including the newly completed spray fields at the wastewater treatment plant, were long overdue, residents and district officials agree.

The California Regional Water Quality Control Board has fined the district and Napa County $400,000 for failing to comply with state regulations.

The district hopes to complete upgrades before a deadline of Oct. 15, but it is racing against the clock in efforts to address an excess of water in its sewage treatment ponds. If it fails to get the water in the ponds down, it risks being found out of compliance with state regulations again.

Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon said this week she is hopeful that the situation has improved at Berryessa Estates, and that district engineers have a “good grasp now on what we need to have done.”

“I’m optimistic we can work through this,” she said.

But Lake Berryessa Resort Improvement District and other rural districts in California face a vexing web of problems: High costs to maintain their infrastructure, increasingly strict environmental regulations, falling land values and a challenging economy.

Speaking of rural subdivisions far from most residential services, Dillon said, “We can’t approve communities like these in the future.”

Longtime Berryessa Estates resident Darlene Marler said she has made arrangements to pay her $15,000 assessment in full to qualify for a 10 percent refund, planted drought-resistant plants and kept her water bill low. She fully supports the district’s decision to issue $5.2 million in bonds to repair the district’s infrastructure.

Yet she worries about what’s to come at Berryessa Estates.

“It’s very different living out here, where we live,” she concluded.

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