Comparison: Key changes in draft septic ordinance

Brown County Board of Health members said many of the points in the new septic ordinance they’ve been drafting are the same as the 1997 version — though they’re in a different order, so side-by-side comparison is difficult.

Sale and inspection

If someone isn’t planning to expand their home or sell their home, or have their septic system fail, the new ordinance wouldn’t have an immediate effect.

Under the new draft, when a home is sold, a septic inspection will be required. If that report says that the septic is failing or is undersized for the number of bedrooms the home is marketed to have, the seller and buyer will have to decide who is going to upgrade the septic system to current standards.

Brown County environmental health specialist John Kennard said the health department recently pulled 10 local real estate listings at random and compared them to septic system records on file for those properties, and six of them were advertising more bedrooms than the septic system was sized to serve.

That could result in a system failing soon after the new buyer moves in. Installing a new system could cost about $15,000, Kennard said.

The real estate agent also could face a lawsuit from those new owners, said county commissioner Diana Biddle, who used to sell real estate and had been sued for that reason.

Many real estate transactions already include a septic inspection as part of a home inspection, but not every home inspector does them the same way or knows a lot about septic systems, Kennard said.

The health department is working on a test that would certify people to inspect septic systems and a form they would all use to do them, he said.

RELATED STORY: Health board explains reasons behind septic law changes

STATE CODE: Septic rules in place now statewide (PDF)

Several people at the meeting mentioned a $400 inspection fee, which was published in a previous story in the Brown County Democrat.

Kennard had thrown out $400 as a rough estimate for what a septic inspection might cost during an earlier health board meeting, but health department board President Jim Zimmerly said that isn’t a fee the board would set; it would be up to the inspectors, and a home seller could shop around among the certified inspectors.

What is a bedroom?

“Bedroom” is another difference between the 1997 and 2017 versions — and it was a big point of contention during the rewrite attempt in 2012.

In the 1997 version, “bedroom” was “any room that may be advertised as, reasonably implied to be, reasonably perceived as or potentially easily converted to a bedroom.”

In the new draft, “bedroom” is defined based on state law: It must be at least 70 square feet, have at least one operable window or exterior door and have a closet if it’s new construction.

It is also “any room in a residence that the local health department and the owner agree could be occupied for the purpose of sleeping” if it also meets those above conditions.

There are instances in which a person builds a house with only two rooms they intend to use as bedrooms, plus other rooms they call a den or sewing room which could reasonably be used for sleeping, Zimmerly said.

In those cases, the builder/homeowner could sign an affidavit saying that the septic system is designed only for two bedrooms, and they will not use those other rooms for sleeping without the approval of the local health department, the draft law says.

Health board member Cathy Rountree said in many communities, the builder of a new home doesn’t have the choice to define how he’s going to use the home, but “we felt that was a really positive thing we could offer.”

That document is intended to travel with the property, so when a real estate agent sells that house, the agent and the potential new buyer will know that even though those extra rooms look like they could become bedrooms, the septic system could fail if the system is overloaded with use by too many people, Zimmerly said.

When an older home is being sold, if its septic system is not the appropriate size for the year the house was built, it also will have to be upgraded to current standards, the draft says. But if it passes inspection and is properly sized, it will not have to be replaced.

Penalties, more

The draft ordinance also includes higher penalties for violation, when state law contains none.In the 1997 version, the penalty was up to $500 for the first offense and $1,000 for other offenses, with each day after missing a deadline to fix a problem counting as a separate offense.

In the new draft, penalties were more than doubled to $1,000 for the first offense, $2,500 for the second and $5,000 for the third.

Rountree said she called around to neighboring counties and found penalties ranging from $500 to $25,000 per day.

The new draft also contains sections specific to tourist homes and other types of overnight rentals; how septic inspections can be conducted, by whom and in what circumstances; and how pump-and-haul — a temporary fix to a failed system — should be conducted.

Read the current version of the ordinance and the draft version here:

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Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.