Carol Cutting remembers sitting inside her 19th-century Bangor home in April 2021, looking out the window at the workers in her front yard. She had hired a crew to make sure there were no wires or gas lines that ran underground, so she could build a picket fence.
As she watched, some of the workers started planting flags around her driveway in a line that extended into her backyard, Cutting said. They added another and another until the outline of a structure hidden beneath the ground emerged. It looked like a rectangular tree.
The structure, she came to find out, was a 140-year-old city sewer line made of bricks and mortar, running beneath the length of her lot and connecting not just to her house but multiple neighbors’ houses as well. It was all on her private property.
Cutting had lived in her house on Eaton Place, which connects Fifth and Fourth streets, for more than 20 years and had never known about the ancient sewer. She raised her son there and watched him play in a sandbox that at one point sat above the line all her neighbors’ waste flowed through, she said.
The discovery set off two years of strife between Cutting, her neighbors and the city of Bangor, culminating in Cutting recently threatening to remove her neighbors’ sewer lines that cross her yard, all because Cutting said city officials dismissed her concerns. She is worried about not just her property value and family’s health, but who will be responsible when one of the lines inevitably fails — and how anyone will know.
“We’re just hidden here. It’s like a little Europe,” Cutting said as she looked down Eaton Place. “But there’s a sewer that goes down my driveway and yard that nobody wants to really know about. I’m scared to death.”
The city’s latest communication to Cutting came in the form of a May 31 letter from Bangor’s attorney, David Szewczyk. He told Cutting the city would not grant a permit for her to unearth her neighbors’ sewer lines on her property and that she would be in violation of city rules if she tried. Szewczyk’s letter claimed the city had found evidence that Cutting’s neighbors have every right to cross her private property lines and connect to the city sewer that runs through her property.
But the city declined to provide proof of any agreements between the properties, and a search of Penobscot County property records turned up no easements granting neighboring homeowners the right to extend their sewer lines across Cutting’s property.
With the city’s latest letter and Cutting’s continued frustration, she remains trapped in a home she may not be able to eventually sell, worried that if the sewer running beneath her yard hasn’t failed yet, it one day will, forcing the question of who will have to fix it. If there is no plan in place now, she worries about the possibility of later having a lengthy fight about it while human waste leaks into her yard or basement.
She has asked the city to move the sewer off her land. The city has said no. The main sewer line appears to be in good condition, then-interim City Manager Debbie Laurie told Cutting in 2021, so there is no reason to replace it.
But while it appears structurally sound, Cutting is concerned that even a small piece of missing mortar may have caused a leak in the past or will in the future.
What’s more, the city could not inspect the private sewer lines running off the main to the homes of Cutting’s neighbors, leaving Cutting to wonder if they are also intact. Cutting cannot inspect them because she would need access to her neighbors’ basements, she said. Even if she had their permission, she does not want to incur that cost.
“I’ve been complaining about this for years. You’ve done nothing to assess the safety,” Cutting said of the city’s inaction.
Cutting believes the stress of having a sewer junction in her small yard has contributed to the worsening of her Tourette syndrome, a condition of the nervous system that causes her to make sudden movements and slow her speech. It has made it difficult for her to communicate with city officials, she said, and she believes has made them less likely to take her seriously. Having motor or vocal tics is a bit like having hiccups; the body does it even when the person doesn’t want it to.
A legal gray area also complicates the issue. There is an easem ent in place between the city and a previous owner of Cutting’s land, granting the city the right to construct and maintain a public sewer main there. The easement, signed by Lorenzo Andrews in 1880, took effect before the house was built in 1888, according to city property records.
But that easement didn’t say it was granting blanket approval to the rest of Andrews’ neighbors, some of whom may not have built their homes yet, to connect to that sewer main running through his property, which now belongs to Cutting.
‘We had never even seen that line’
The 1880 easement marked a shift in Bangor as residents moved away from dumping their waste directly into rivers and streams to a more organized system that aimed to process and treat the waste, said Amanda Smith, Bangor’s director of water quality.
Smith sat at her desk inside her office at Bangor’s wastewater treatment center on May 19, her eyes scanning a map of the city. Red and green lines showed Bangor’s sewer infrastructure.
With updates in technology and a push over the last 10 years to fully map and evaluate all of the city’s sewers, Smith and her team have explored miles of sewer lines that make up Bangor’s waste highway, she said.
But back in April 2021, Smith saw Cutting’s line for the first time when her department checked for sewer lines under Eaton Place before public works sought to repave it, she said. Then she heard from Cutting.
“We had never even seen that line,” Smith said. “We knew that there was a line just from historical maps, but we never had access to that line.”
A subsequent installation of a manhole and inspection using a special camera system gave Smith a glimpse into the past, and showed a 143-year-old sewer made from bricks and mortar, she said.
As the camera pressed deeper into the structure, it panned left and right, evaluating the sewer for deficiencies and to spot private connections to homes. In a clip of the footage, the camera found six connections, showing how multiple properties feed into the sewer structure.
Although the sewer line is old by anyone’s standards, the inspection of the one line was promising, Smith said. It didn’t reveal any major deficiencies, which to Smith meant that Bangor’s work was done.
“We never know what to expect. We knew that it was an 1800s line,” Smith said. “We determined there was nothing majorly defective about that line that would have us concerned about anything.”
Brick-and-mortar sewers are some of the most long-lasting in the city, she said. The lines more likely to fail tend to be made of more brittle materials that came online in the 1940s and 1950s, Smith said.
The city also has seen for the first time on camera additional so-called cross-country sewer lines that travel across multiple pieces of private property. And especially to people who do not work frequently with sewage, it can be overwhelming, Smith said.
“It’s just unseen and unthought of until there’s a problem. And there’s an emotional piece about sewage that you wouldn’t expect. Sewage is scary,” Smith said.
While there isn’t much for her department to do, Smith said, “I don’t want to discount [Cutting’s] concerns because I feel that she has a real fear of this sewer line. I truly believe that.”
‘It’s going to happen’
Over the past two years, Cutting has spent “thousands of hours” of her time researching her sewer problem. On a table set up in her living room is a sprawling set of notes, printouts and hand-drawn diagrams mapping the sewer running through her property and which neighbors might connect to it. She’s still not sure.
“These are my neighbors and my closest friends,” she said. “But you know, at what point can you sacrifice your health or that of your family? You live in fear of when it’s going to happen. If it’s not leaking now, it’s going to happen.”
Cutting has reached out to several city offices in an attempt to find someone who might help her. She’s talked to public works, the wastewater department, the appraiser, the city manager and even the City Council. But so far, her calls for help have been met with refusals and dismissals, she said.
“The city has just ignored it,” she said. “I mean, I have a freaking sewer in my yard.”
The city has “quickly responded and thoroughly investigated” Cutting’s concerns, Smith replied in a later email. It has conferred with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and DEP staff have met with the city and Cutting, she said.
Their response has not been enough for Cutting, who still doesn’t know who will be responsible if, for instance, a private sewer lateral — one of the branches off the main trunk of the sewer — fails on her property. The city didn’t answer a question from the Bangor Daily News about what it would do if that happened.
If a private sewer system leaks, the city notifies the state. The DEP “has authority over environmental concerns related to private property,” Smith said. “This is true of environmental spills for substances of many types, e.g., sewer, oils, fuels, hazardous waste … etc.”
At one point, in 2021, the city planned to repave Eaton Place. But after Cutting raised alarms about her sewer situation, that work never happened because of her, according to a Jan. 31, 2022, email to her from Aaron Huotari, Bangor public works director.
Huotari said the city was prepared to widen Eaton Place to make it easier for Cutting and other residents to exit their driveways. But that work came to a halt when Cutting suggested the city move the sewer line from under her yard to under the street, Huotari said.
“The street will be repaved once your issues with the city sewer system and private sewer connections are resolved to your satisfaction,” Huotari said in the email.
The road has still not been repaved.
“It’s like they’re holding the street hostage,” Cutting said.
Since the city is not keen to move the sewer, Cutting started looking into alternatives. Earlier this spring, Cutting told her neighbors she planned to dig up their sewer connections that cross onto her property to protect herself and her home. Then, at the end of May, the city attorney told her she couldn’t do that.
The neighbors had a right to her property because “permanent easements were obtained from the property owners,” Szewczyk said in a May 31 letter to Cutting.
“Should you follow through on your stated intent to have a contractor dig up and disconnect neighbors’ sewer connections from the City sewer, without first obtaining a permit to do so, you would be in violation of either §252-6(A) or §252-7(1), or both,” Szewczyk said.
Yet nowhere in the original 1880 easement between Lorenzo Andrews and the city did Andrews grant universal access to the public sewer line that would be built on his property.
When the BDN asked Szewczyk to provide the easements noted in his letter, he at first said he was “not going to be sending” them. Then he admitted he doesn’t know if the easements exist.
“First of all, you don’t know that there are not easements between the property owners. I don’t know, and you don’t know,” he said. “So there could very well be easements between the property owners. I don’t know.”
The BDN found no such easements in the Penobscot County Registry of Deeds.
The sewer book from 1880 showed faded, handwritten entries and descriptions of properties that paid a fee to use the sewer. The book did not say which homes were connected to the sewer in what was then Andrews’ yard, however. It did not describe any agreements in place between the owners and Andrews to cross into his private property to connect to the sewer.
Cutting described Szewczyk’s argument that neighbors have access to her property because they paid a sewer fee as “bizarre.” Does that also mean people with private sewers on her property have the right to dig them up to maintain them? she asked. If the connecting pipes are indeed part of the city’s easement for the main pipe, are they then the city’s responsibility?
When asked why the city would not grant Cutting the right to remove objects from her property that do not have clear permission to be there, Szewczyk reiterated that the city feels those neighbors have the right to connect to the sewer through Cutting’s land. He did not elaborate on a legal justification.
Utility easements, like the one Cutting’s property has with the city, are common and should come up when a title search is done, said Tim Harris, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law who specializes in land law. Title searches typically show all the public records available for a property and are usually conducted when a house is purchased.
Cutting said the easement didn’t come up in three different title searches conducted for her property.
In terms of what’s next, a land survey would be needed and more legal research, Harris said.
For now, Cutting has painted on her driveway the form of the sewer that continues to haunt her. The old bricks funneling waste beneath her grass and pavement may be in decent shape now. But when one crumbles, she imagines the rest will follow.
BDN writer Sawyer Loftus may be reached at [email protected].