Frozen sewer line puts Niskayuna woman in bind

Marjorie Corrow looks over a row of embroidery machines in her workshop on Route 7 in Niskayuna. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)Marjorie Corrow looks over a row of embroidery machines in her workshop on Route 7 in Niskayuna. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

By REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA — Marjorie Corrow knows much more about sewers than she’d like. But if she’d known a little more when she bought her home on Troy-Schenectady Road, she could have saved a lot of frustration and quite a bit of cash.

“I’ve lived in this house for nine years,” Corrow said. “From the very first winter I got here, I’ve had problems with the sewer system.”

Corrow, a single mother of two adult children who have since moved out, both resides at and operates her business, Life’s a Stitch Custom Embroidery, from the property. When she first moved in nearly a decade ago, she was especially enamored with the external garage, which she knew she could fill with the buzz of embroidery machines and colorful cones of floss.

She didn’t expect to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a sewer system that repeatedly fails, leaving her and her employees to drive to a nearby convenience store to use the restroom on cold days.

Two factors bear primary responsibility for Corrow’s difficult situation:

First, her home operates on a pressure sewer system with a grinder pump, because she’s downhill from the town sewer main. While most sewer pipes drain downhill, Corrow’s is more complicated because liquid has to be pushed against gravity. This is no problem in the summer; the pump works great. But in the winter, when sewer lines freeze, the pump goes into overdrive and then burns out. This has happened a couple of times. Corrow said she could’ve saved herself this headache, in part, if she had been more attentive during the home inspection process.

Second, Corrow is in a unique situation because the pipe that runs from her home to the town sewer line crosses under a state road. According to town code in Niskayuna, homeowners are responsible for all the pipe between their properties and the town sewer main, even if it crosses publicly owned property. But unlike pipe in her own yard, Corrow can’t just hire someone to dig up Route 7. It’s an expensive and complex process.

Carol Breen, a public information officer for the New York State Department of Transportation, could not estimate how much it would cost for Corrow to commission construction work involving the area of Route 7. But the list of details doesn’t sound cheap.

“The permit fee is variable based on the size and scope of the project,” Breen said in an email. “[Homeowners] may need to pay for DOT inspectors to be on scene while the work is being done, depending on a number of factors. They would also need insurances and to be bonded for any potential damage to the road. Normally this is all handled through a contractor experienced in this kind of work.”

For some homeowners, this might be feasible, but Corrow says it isn’t in her budget.

“Bankruptcy is looming in the distance,” she said. “This has the potential to put me out of business.”

Given the unusual situation of needing to traverse an important local roadway, Corrow said she has sought legal advice about whether the town could be relied upon to help her with the project. But she hasn’t found any opportunities for assistance. The town code is written to protect it from these costs, just like the codes of many nearby municipalities.

“It’s expensive, but that’s what comes with being a homeowner,” said Niskayuna Town Supervisor Joe Landry. “Other homeowners have the same problem. That’s just the way life is. You buy a house; you own the sewer pipe that goes from the road to your house.”

Landry said town employees had visited Corrow in the past and recommended solutions, which she declined to pursue.

Corrow said her last resort now is to sell the house, but she’s afraid she won’t be able to.

“I tried to sell it twice,” she said. “I fixed [the sewer] and then listed it, and it didn’t sell.”

While Corrow waits for the spring thaw and sorts through her options as a homeowner, she says she hopes potential homebuyers will remember her story and ask plenty of questions about the part of a home no one wants to think about: the sewer system. Because when overlooked, it can become a painful and frustrating expense.

“I don’t know how to fix this,” she said. “I don’t know how to make it better.”

This story originally appeared in The Daily Gazette.