Who knew that paradise-by-the-sea on Stinson Beach would turn out to be a septic tub story?

stinson beach bolinas sunset septic tub

These pictures of Bolinas Lagoon and adjoining Stinson Beach were taken as a distraction from ferociously itching, scaly and weeping skin — caused by unwanted contact in this setting with sewage flowing the wrong way in a series of ‘septic backups’ (inset).
Pictures by scriba

Do prospective renters from other places – not just house-buyers – deserve to be warned by landlords and house-owners about chronic, potentially dangerous plumbing failures in a town whose population has voted for privately-managed sewage systems in their own yards and against publicly-managed sanitation?

After a tenant has been seriously injured by being kept in the dark — and by slipshod preventative maintenance — should it be permissible for landlords to instruct experts making repairs not to share any information about those problems with their renters?

We were outsiders who rented a house on the California coast, famous for scenery that beggars all superlatives.

One of us, Advocat, is a professor-turned-lawyer from another part of America; the other, Scriba, a writer from across the Atlantic.

In this record, pseudonyms and switching back and forth between the first and third persons will create the essential distance from our taste of Purgatory-on-the-Pacific. There are some experiences you just do not want to re-live too vividly. The jottings made here – with illustrations – are divided into five sections:

  • Why we moved to the coast
  • Diary: what happened (pictures posted here)
  • How does it feel to be injured by ‘septic backup’?
  • Warning: vital information withheld from us that caused actual harm
  • Tentative conclusions from a life-changing tenancy

WHY WE MOVED TO THE COAST

A Scottish friend, a Highlander, was unimpressed by California, except for Bodega Bay – having admired the way Alfred Hitchcock, his favourite director, used it as a backdrop in The Birds. But the best-known spot on the north coast is a graceful sand crescent slightly south of Bodega. It’s the one usually marked for attention in the bracing patter of pilots – as in, ‘This is your captain … approaching San Francisco airport … just below us … it’s another gorgeous day on Stinson Beach … and yes, some of those tiny specks are surfboards …’.

‘Why are there so few houses on the coast?’ Scriba asked anyone who seemed likely to have the right answer, on her first visit to California from London. Not only did she fail to meet a single ocean-dweller among the people she worked with in San Francisco and Silicon Valley; she met no one who knew anyone who fit the description.

The rough consensus was an explanation in two parts: (i) Cold: the ocean was frigid and the coast seldom got enough sun. Too often, it was shrouded in an icy mist known locally as ‘the fog’. (ii) Environmentalists: these had commendably gone to work early in the history of the state, drafting laws for protecting the seaside from development – fearing the ugly, overcrowded concrete sprawl common in coastal Europe and Asia. That made it hard to find Pacific property to rent or buy.

In the early summer of 2012, after the landlords of the house-in-the-woods we had been living in were forced to put our refuge up for sale, we had to look for a new home in a frighteningly overheated rental market. Houses and apartments we could afford had become as rare as peacock’s teeth – at least, anything that met our requirements. Because Advocat commutes to his office in San Francisco, the ideal perch for us is a swift run to the Golden Gate Bridge – but it also has to be somewhere replicating the peace and open vistas of the mountain home in eastern California from which Advocat asked Scriba to move, to be with him.

After weeks of brutally competitive house-hunting and failing to find that vital compromise between our needs, Scriba – scanning Craigslist – spotted an advertisement for a three-bedroom, modernist bungalow in Stinson Beach with a surprisingly low rent. We would discover reasons for this very different from the one Scriba was given by Marden N. Plant – the real-estate agent who also happened to be the active half of the couple who were its landlords (and so referred to, for simplicity’s sake, as the landlord in this account). She had made astonishing sums from renting it out to vacationers for short stays, she said. But then ‘I got tired of dealing with the in-out, in-out, in-out, every weekend!’ and so, she said, she started letting it out to long-term tenants.

We should have been suspicious – much, much, more suspicious.

A week’s rent for many neighbouring houses, we would soon find, was higher than Ms. Plant’s price for a whole month of occupying hers. We might have checked on this sort of detail if we had been house-hunting under less pressure. We imputed far too much integrity to Ms. Plant from her frequent mentions of boards she served on; of her father’s high standards for running the building maintenance and construction business he had bequeathed to her; of her years of owning a patch of Stinson Beach where Senator Dianne Feinstein has a getaway mansion a few doors away, and a few months earlier, Eileen Donahoe, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council, had sold her three-bedroom house for $2.2 million.

Ms. Plant told Scriba she wanted renters who would love her house as much as she did: that mattered to her more than money.

Advocat, when he saw it, was just as keen on 297 Seadrift Road – even if it was not the Pacific Ocean but an artificial lagoon that we saw mere feet from a wall of picture windows. Instead of looking at neighbouring houses across a garden wall, there was blue water in-between. We could hear waves crushing sand in a grand, calming rhythm on the shore less than two hundred yards away, in the other direction.

Natural beauty was what had drawn each of us to California. Separately and together, we had lived on San Francisco Bay; in wooded inland valleys; on steep hilltops; in wine country; in high desert terrain; on the lip of Lake Tahoe in deep snow.

The one California setting neither of us had ever tried was the coast.

Moving to Stinson Beach would mean making Advocat’s daily commute twice as long — perhaps the most important reason, we told each other, why the rent was improbably affordable. Scriba was uneasy about the Seadrift house’s location in a gated community — the sort of regimented environment that strikes her as not unlike a minimum-security prison. Still, we agreed that the house seemed sent by providence to satisfy our curiosity about life on the water’s rim.

Marden Plant, our landlord – a wiry, fidgety, designer-shades-with-tan California blonde — was eager to sign our lease. She could not have been more reassuring about life in Seadrift. [ to be continued …]

DIARY: WHAT HAPPENED

Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 17.31.41

Undisturbed quiet, we told Ms. Plant, was supremely important to us. This was what Scriba — who worked from home — required not just after dark, but in the mornings, when she slept after long nights at her desk. Her house, Ms. Plant assured us, was just such a perfect retreat.

The problems that began on the first day after we took possession of 297 Seadrift Road were many. Too soon, there was a virtually non-stop procession of specialists in home repair and construction tramping through the house and yard, alternating with frantic email and telephone exchanges with Ms. Plant.

Though the sewage disasters would soon dwarf all the other irritants, chronic, loud noise came a close second, on too many days — often starting soon after dawn.

Imagine being worn out by house-hunting during an acute habitation shortage, by packing and cleaning out the home we were leaving, coping with the logistics of coordinating what we did with a moving company — and longing for nothing as much as being left alone to settle into our new place.

As this diary shows, the prayer went unanswered:

Wednesday June 27

We move into 297 Seadrift Road in the Seadrift gated community in a surfer’s paradise, the Californian town called Stinson Beach.

Thursday June 28

We discover that, during the night, the refrigerator froze our sparkling water solid and irreparably damaged all the vegetables Advocat had bought at a farmers’ market.

Also find that the oven cooks unevenly, burning parts of food.

Saturday June 30

While Scriba is taking a bath, the septic tank backs up, filling tub with grey, feathery objects and jelly-like blobs. The second bathtub also fills with water from the drain.

Plumber1 arrives, adjusts septic tank (technically, ‘switches leach fields’) gives some advice on septic problem; not enough, sadly, to protect us from reruns of this drama. Notices that faucets are unmistakably leaking in both basins in master bathroom — one set, heavily.

A house-maintenance contractor, Plumber2, out fishing earlier, when our landlord — Marden Plant — called for help, arrives and gives Scriba more detailed explanations and advice on the problem (though even these would prove insufficient, in time). He was the last plumber to work on the septic tank and plumbing before we moved in. Says he had told Ms. Plant that the surest way to put an end to the plumbing emergencies that had long preceded our arrival was ‘scoping’ — putting a camera down the pipes (yes, the plumbing equivalent of a colonoscopy). … Ms. Plant declined to spend the money on this chance to protect her tenants from harm. (Would later say of Plumber2, sardonically, that he had expensive ideas.)

Scriba had hoped to start un-boxing her starter-pack for work in the new house – write a few lines of the chapter of the book she was working on before the move. This did not happen, and would not, for several weeks to come …

Sunday July 1

Scriba scrubs both bathtubs with vinegar and water; puts shower curtains, liners, and towels through washer-dryer. The job takes 2 hours, in the middle of the night (she had been unpacking boxes all day).

Tuesday July 3

Hx Construction arrives to work on the plumbing for several hours. While this father-and-son repair crew toils, there is another – smaller – incident of reversed plumbing.

They leave and Scriba goes through the bathrooms again: disinfects; cleanses; washes towels.

Wednesday July 4 – July 7

Advocat and Scriba finally leave on a holiday for which time was set aside months ago. The plan was to spend the first half of the week of July 2 relaxing, and in the second, work outdoors, far away from Stinson Beach. … No relaxation was possible: departure had to be postponed to deal with the plumbing crisis and its aftermath.

Sunday July 8

Toilet in main bathroom ‘bubbles’ ominously – even though the septic tank was pumped by sub-contractor of Hx Construction, in our absence — on July 7.

Tuesday July 10

Septic Wizards arrives to check plumbing and diagnose cause of bubbling. No conclusion reached.

Wednesday July 11

Hx Construction spends most of a day installing two sets of new bathroom taps (faucets) and new oven. Tiles are cracked in tap replacement, which lengthens the tasks by an hour or two. This is not necessarily Hx’s fault, but does mean that Scriba’s work will have to be interrupted yet again — for tile-repair.

[to be continued: watch for the biggest and most disgusting septic crisis yet]

HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE INJURED BY SEPTIC BACKUP?

Aloe leaves, picked with kind permission from plants outside the offices of the Seadrift Association. This was one remedy Scriba tried for the eczema -- not, unfortunately, with any success.

Aloe leaves, picked with kind permission from the Seadrift Association, from plants outside its office. This was one remedy Scriba tried for the eczema — not, unfortunately, with any success.
Picture by scriba

Had it been brown rather than clear waste-water that came surging up through the plug-hole when Scriba took her first bath in 297 Seadrift Road – on the fourth day after she and Advocat moved into the house – they would have moved out immediately. They would also have done so if they had known that Scriba would effectively be confined to the premises for over three weeks by a violent dermatological reaction, after two more septic accidents. But contact with sewage from defective plumbing was so remote from their experience that they did not realise – until too late – what health risks they ran by staying on. They were waiting patiently for their landlord – so convincingly presented as a pillar of the community — to make repairs.

A septic tank is a sort of box, a miniaturised sewage treatment plant in which the ‘solids’ are designed to sink to the bottom. What came floating up in the first sewage crisis were jelly-like, transparent blobs of partially treated waste, and slimy, feathery objects.

When disaster struck, Scriba had innocently been draining part of the bathtub to replace cooler with hotter water from the tap – as this was supposed to have been (oh irony of ironies) a curative soak, to stop the aching in legs overworked by days of packing and lifting boxes.

Only after she ran to the shower in the other bathroom to scrub herself clean and saw water coming up its plughole, too – as the toilet bowl gurgled and filled – did she realise what must be happening.

Eczema – Scriba’s first experience, ever, of its gruesome damage — struck a few days after two other incidents of sewage flowing the wrong way in 297 Seadrift Road. Though Scriba never had another septic bath, her attempts at cleaning up before professional cleaners arrived on a deep-sanitation mission re-exposed her to contaminants. The first septic system crisis happened early on a Saturday evening; the second, in the late afternoon of the 3rd of July – too late, in each case, to telephone housecleaners.

She was careful to use rubber gloves, disinfecting all the contaminated surfaces with vinegar and pure alcohol – but a plumber later explained that, unfortunately, decontamination could not be complete in a bathroom whose walls and cabinets were made of porous, untreated wood.

Until her skin began to itch, ooze, and form scaly eczema crusts, Scriba had no idea that contact with sewage could have such an effect – although Google, when she thought to look there, instantly confirmed the connection. The links that popped up on the first page of search results were mostly for medical literature and reports of people hurt by such accidents in wretchedly poor parts of the world – such as slums or underdeveloped rural regions in the Caribbean, Vietnam and China.

This was Scriba’s stream of consciousness after the eczema got going:

  • This itching is so ferocious that I want to rip my face off. … Try another natural remedy.
  • Have another colloidal oatmeal (Aveeno) bath. If only the relief from these — the recommendation of my dear, brilliant friend, BMR — lasted for more than two or three hours …
  • Immersing my hair in the colloidal oatmeal bath does stop the raging itching on my scalp for a while, but no matter how hard I wash out every last trace of the powder, it – and the more frequent shampooing – are making my hair dull, dry, and discoloured.
  • Trying to cover my face with makeup, even the mineral kind I have managed to find – a formula marketed by dermatologists for allergy-sufferers – does not hide the redness and hideous, weeping, scaly patches.
  • I cannot stand the sight of myself in any mirror or reflecting surface. Red, damaged, swollen skin on my face and straw-like hair.
  • I cannot distract myself from the itching by attempting to work on my book because I have yet to unpack my research – which is still in boxes.
  • Why are they still there? To unpack my work notes and books, and the rest of the pots and pans, for our kitchen, I would have to be sure that we are staying in this house. I am not sure we should. But …
  • … I cannot look for a new house until these symptoms have subsided enough for me not to frighten or disgust people when I go out.
  • But when will that be? Sensations of imprisonment and claustrophobia are overwhelming.
  • (… three weeks into this horror, as symptoms begin to ease) I begin a second round of house-hunting in three months. This is hard enough, but close to unbearable is the embarrassment of having to explain my still rather strange appearance to managers of property for rent. … At the Apple store in Corte Madera where I go for technical support for a malfunctioning tablet, the young employees look horrified when – in the heat and overcrowded room – my skin begins to blow up and the itching makes my eyes water.
  • Even my doctor, when I see him, and show him photographs documenting the progress of the eczema, is visibly repelled.
  • The hairdresser, a very young woman, feeling lumps on my scalp as she shampoos my hair, looks puzzled and uncomfortable.

How best to describe my psychological state, after a few days of such a thought-stream?

  • In addition to waking, on some nights, from screaming nightmares – rare occurrences, for me — these symptoms of a variant of post-traumatic stress disorder (from the Wikipedia) were minutely applicable:
  • Shame: Deep embarrassment, often characterized as humiliation or mortification.
  • Self-blame: Exaggerated feelings of responsibility for the traumatic event, with guilt and remorse, despite obvious evidence of innocence.
  • Subjugation: Feeling belittled, dehumanized, lowered … and powerless as a direct result of the trauma.
  • […]
  • Defilement: Feeling dirty, disgusted, disgusting, tainted, “like spoiled goods, …”.

Nearly a year later, Scriba continues to wash her face exclusively with Aveeno colloidal oatmeal. Her scalp itches fiendishly on hot days, and under extreme stress – as at Los Angeles airport, after a 15-hour flight she took to see her gravely ill mother – the itching and redness return to her face and head. These had never been symptoms of over-exertion for her before the events in 297 Seadrift Road.

The treatment for severe eczema is systemic medication – such as Prednisone, which has alarming side-effects, including nightmares. Manifestations and consequences of full-scale systemic ailments can take years to develop. Scriba is keeping her fingers crossed.

In sum: what follows a septic bath adds up to an experience you would not wish on an enemy.

WARNING: VITAL INFORMATION WITHHELD FROM US THAT CAUSED ACTUAL HARM

Stopped at the Seadrift gate

Stopped at the Seadrift gate
Picture by scriba

Seadrift Guest Pass

If you lived in a glass house-enclave — a small, ‘exclusive’ community — would you take reasonably good care of newcomers and visitors, so defending your settlement from possible stone-throwers? Common-sense suggests that, yes, that is exactly what you would do. Apparently, it was a thought that never occurred to our landlord – even though she runs a company specialising in the maintenance and repair of commercial buildings.

You might imagine that she would worry about her Seadrift community’s image in nearby San Francisco – fair or unfair:

Up the coast there’s Stinson Beach, the popular and noisy strip of wide sand bar and former wetlands loved by both surfers and plutocrats alike. The plutocrats have Seadrift, the gated private community between the Pacific and and Route One, […] In keeping with the gated community vibe, Seadrift actively discourages short term rentals, large groups and parties.

- blog post on the San Francisco site of Curbed, 5 August 2010

Doug Rigg of Mill Valley was kicked off the beach after he put his towel down in an area adjacent to the exclusive Seadrift development in Stinson Beach. Dr. Kirk Boyd of the U.C. Berkeley School of Law sees Rigg’s encounter as a violation of the state’s coastal access laws.

[...]

Peter Douglas, the executive director of the Coastal Commission, called the practice by Seadrift of kicking people off the beach for sunbathing “thuggery.”

- The San Francisco Chronicle, 7 February 2008

The worst prospect Scriba could have imagined for a sojourn in an actively excluding, not merely ‘exclusive,’ gated community in California would have been being surrounded by sterile conformity; and driven mad by nit-picking enforcers of petty rules. The Seadrift Association’s regulations ordain, for instance, that only house-owners and not renters (not even the super-rich paying $8,800 a week) can use the part of the beach that it owns – or believes it does. The guards in the sentry-box at the entrance to the enclave ask even new tenants who already have gate passes to display a sheet of paper painted in Day-Glo pink or green on the dashboards of their cars – ‘for a few weeks, or until we recognise your faces,’ one explained.

What neither Advocat nor Scriba could have anticipated was that, soon after they moved in, Scriba would be making an appointment to see her doctor – as a result, far down the road, of a deliberate decision by the community of Stinson Beach to control population growth by declining to modernise their system of waste disposal. That was a draw-bridgers’ choice designed to discourage newcomers from migrating to the area.

Now, if that is what California law allows, the people of Stinson Beach are certainly within their rights. But shouldn’t would-be renters be warned about the risks they will run — that local property-owners’ personalised sewer-systems fail so commonly that specialists in septic repair say that their services are required in the the area week after week?

This was the community’s decision about waste disposal, as explained by the the Stinson Beach County Water District — established in 1962 to deal not with the supply of water but the pollution of the environment by septic waste:

Many people who move here from areas that are served by sewers are surprised to find that Stinson Beach has individual onsite wastewater disposal systems (septic systems). Water District employees are asked frequently why septic systems are used, why we don’t have a sewer and treatment facility, and why their systems require monitoring. The simple answer is that through the process of community meetings and a bond vote in a special election, the residents of Stinson Beach rejected over 10 different sewer plans and chose the alternative of onsite systems.

Now, we have had no time, so far, for investigative research – to look into how many other families renting houses in this settlement have suffered the chaotic fallout we did. But there is something not a little surreal about being given a surprise septic bath with the romance writer Danielle Steel for a neighbour – whether or not she spends much time at the Seadrift house she put on the market for $2.65 million, not long ago.

[ to be continued …]

TENTATIVE CONCLUSIONS FROM A LIFE-CHANGING TENANCY

One set of leaking taps waiting for us when we arrived: they would be replaced twice before we left, two months later Picture by scriba

One set of leaking taps waiting for us when we arrived: they would be replaced twice before we left, two months later
Picture by scriba

High in the introduction to the Wikipedia’s digest of medical literature on eczema is the word ‘persistent’:

The term eczema is broadly applied to a range of persistent skin conditions.

Discussing the treatment of this illness, EczemaNet, a site dedicated to it says:

One of the most important goals of eczema treatment is to prevent the development of rashes by avoiding those things that trigger itching. […] However, experts note, once skin inflammation occurs, prevention is less effective and anti-inflammatory agents, such as corticosteroids, become necessary to effectively manage the condition.

The long-term prognosis for eczema is uncertain. Relapsing is common. Once a trigger like septic bacteria has activated the complex systemic (whole-body) syndrome associated with the illness, symptoms can be set off by a variety of causes – ranging from emotional stress to household cleaning sprays. Eczema can also be triggered by, and run concurrently with, other illnesses.

Corticosteroids are effective in controlling or suppressing symptoms. Oral versions of these drugs are used to treat severe cases of eczema – for instance, the Prednisone that Scriba’s doctor prescribed for her. She filled the prescription but did not take the medicine not just because the pharmacy’s warnings about side-effects included a mention of nightmares as one of these (the days were frightening enough), but possibilities including the glaucoma, cataracts and hypertension also listed on EczemaNet:

Scriba has had to wash her face (and ears, also afflicted by the sewage crises) exclusively with colloidal oatmeal since the two and half months she and Advocat spent in Ms. Plant’s house on Seadrift Road. There is no safe remedy from the frequent itching of her scalp that does not coat and dry on her hair in trace quantities. As stated earlier, there are still occasional, stress-related episodes of redness and itching on her face.

The unforeseeable future consequences of a septic bath a year ago have added a dimension to Scriba’s life that it did not have before.

What was the context for this experience of suffering and worry?

We have noted in passing that the reverse-flow sewage that caused the eczema came in a whole package of troubles (to be described in detail as we fill in this outline). Our problems as new occupants of 297 Seadrift Road included:

  • no telephone landline service. It took weeks of effort – by both tenants and landlord — to get this started. The telephone company said that the last tenants – or someone else – had cut the cables.
  • a broken-down oven, replaced in the first two weeks
  • leaking taps (faucets) in two bathroom sinks – two sets that had to be replaced twice in two months
  • several windows that could never be locked securely
  • a back door lock that had to be replaced in two separate visits from a locksmith
  • the chronic noise mentioned earlier – making the house as far as possible from the haven of quiet we were promised by Ms. Plant

The evidence of Ms. Plant’s deferred maintenance and broken promises is incontrovertible.

In September, as Scriba dealt with the eczema’s disfigurement and the depression of unwilling confinement, Advocat withheld the rent. We waited for Marden Plant to offer the fair financial compensation she had promised us for our taste of purgatory. She named no sum; insisted, instead, that she was still owed the rent because of the repairs she had ordered or completed.

We refused to hand over any more cash without a fair settlement — for a house that was still not habitable. The septic system had still not been certified as safe by the Stinson Beach County Water District.

Marden Plant attempted to evict us with three days’ notice. Shortly after she initiated this legal action, a two-man Septic Wizards team was digging up plants in her yard. She had been forced to hire them yet again after a citation by the SBCWD inspector.

He had found the vegetation impeding the proper functioning of her septic tank, which had failed yet another test.

Here are some questions worth mulling over by anyone interested in the wider implications of our misfortune. They relate to the management of ‘the commons’ – or the rules a society makes for sharing resources the public owns in common, such as coastal land.

Should a landlord be free to set her own terms for doing business and standards of house maintenance …

… in a tiny patch of coastline – about 15 square miles – in which a lucky minority of Californians have been given the chance to own seaside property? …

… a place, Stinson Beach, that these residents defend from new development and population growth by deliberately choosing personal over public sewage management? …

… which also happens to be a place where the sandy soil makes for an operating environment not ideal for septic systems – and increases the likelihood that they will fail? (Details to follow, but this is a good primer: Septic Systems for Homeowners) … One specialist in septic tank repair working on Ms. Plant’s house told Scriba that his truck, and those of others in the same line of work, can be seen in Seadrift practically every week.)

Many houses in this community are not occupied by their owners continuously – or at all — but let as beach property to outsiders, for spectacular rents. Even if they are told about the local system of waste-management, these taxpayers from elsewhere typically know nothing about the functioning of personal sewage systems, or about the consequences when they fail.

Does that mean that there should there be stricter rules for preventative maintenance for the sewer systems of Stinson Beach? Especially as one line in The Great Gatsby – whose latest interpretation in film is this summer’s cinematic talking point — could apply to some local landlords? …

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy …

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