Covington man says city is forcing him to pay thousands after sinkhole opened on his street

COVINGTON, Ky. – A Covington man says he may be forced to pay up to $20,000 to fix a damaged sewer line that caused a sinkhole – and if he doesn’t, the city will fine him every day until he does.

Covington’s code enforcement department notified homeowner Eric Smith Wednesday he has 30 days to repair a lateral sewer line that connects his home in the 1700 block of Jefferson Avenue to a sewer mainline.

The issue caused a sinkhole to open in the public roadway, Covington Code Enforcement Officer Tom McDaniel said.

“The broken lateral (causing the sinkhole) is coming from your property,” McDaniel wrote in the notice to Smith. “You will be required to make the necessary repairs.”

If Smith does not repair the issue within the 30-day limit, McDaniel said he must pay $100 to $500 each day in civil fines until it’s fixed.

Smith said a worker from Northern Kentucky’s Sanitation District No. 1 (SD1) examined the broken sewer line this week and said repairs could cost him up to $20,000, and usually “runs about $15,000.”

“I thought I was going to be sick,” Smith said. “My fear is it’s going to be so expensive I can’t afford it. The other fear is if it doesn’t get fixed soon, more could collapse and it could become dangerous.”

A lateral sewer line connects a home to the sewer mainline. The cost to fix it falls on the homeowner, McDaniel said.

There have been 38 privately owned lateral sewer line failures in 2014, according to Covington City Engineer Mike Yeager.

Smith’s particular lateral sewer line is about 10 feet underground.

“I can’t imagine getting a letter in the mail saying you’ve got a sewer lateral under the road that you’ve got to fix,” Yeager said. “Most people don’t even know what a lateral is.”

Tony McAllister, who lives next to Smith, said he feels terrible for his neighbor.

He called Smith’s predicament “scary.”

“I don’t know what I would do,” McAllister said. “Coughing up $20,000 is not easy for anybody.” 

The sinkhole on Jefferson Avenue opened Monday. Smith has owned his home there since April.

The city has since placed an orange safety cone on top of the sinkhole.

“It’s not a very big hole on the surface, but when you bend down and look in there, it is a huge hole. It is a cavern,” Smith said.

SD1’s Director of Communication Jamie Holtzapfel said workers were called to investigate the sewer line under Jefferson Avenue after the sinkhole opened. As soon as they discovered the lateral was privately owned, they contacted city officials.

Smith said he had no idea he would be responsible to fix damages to a public street.

“I did not know that when I bought the house,” he said. “I really don’t think most homeowners realize that when they buy a house.”

There is a “Homeowner Repair Program” where people can apply for $5,000 in grants through a Community Development Block Grant Program.

The city is also offering to repair the road for free once the lateral is fixed, according to Yeager.

“We try to work with them and give them as much time as we can,” Yeager said. “We realize it’s a high-cost item, but at the same time, it’s a public safety issue we need to address.”

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