St. Louis County residents: Proposed septic rules too strictSt. Louis County’s effort to update septic system regulations — a rewrite ordered by state lawmakers — has run into opposition heading into Thursday’s Planning Commission hearing on the issue.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
St. Louis County’s effort to update septic system regulations — a rewrite ordered by state lawmakers — has run into opposition heading into Thursday’s Planning Commission hearing on the issue.
Some rural residents have said the rules are too strict and would force costly upgrades to septic systems. And local real estate agents say the proposed rules could stifle winter home sales in rural areas.
The News Tribune first reported in October that the county’s septic ordinance changes were finished and ready for public review. The county Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the regulations at 9:30 a.m. Thursday in Virginia’s Northland Office Building and could take action on the changes after that hearing.
Minnesota has more than 544,000 septic systems and St. Louis County has 33,196, the most of any county, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. New septic systems can cost from $10,000 to $25,000, so the issue is a big deal outside of cities with sewer systems.
The state wants to make sure residents aren’t flushing their toilets and fouling their own well water or polluting nearby streams and lakes. County commissioners want to keep rules from being so strict that rural residents can’t afford to comply.
Dozens of people submitted comments and attended two public hearings in recent weeks.
The Duluth Area Realtors Association is especially concerned about a provision intended to make sure home sellers prove their septic systems are compliant before selling their houses. If the seller doesn’t get that certificate of compliance, the rule changes would require the buyer and seller to fund a joint escrow account to cover 110 percent of the cost of a new system.
Because tests can’t be conducted when the ground is frozen, the rule change would require escrows for nearly all winter home sales where the home hadn’t had a certificate of compliance in the past five years, said Sarah Wisdorf, president of the Realtor association.
“You can’t get the compliance test in the winter, so all those sales would have to include the huge escrow for something that probably won’t ever be needed,” Wisdorf said. “This would have a very detrimental effect on home sales.”
Wisdorf said the association supports all of the septic rule changes in county Ordinance 61 “except the escrow provision.”
The county says the escrow requirement will make sure that the systems are tested before a sale and, if necessary, fixed, which has been the intent of the law since the 1990s. In the past, county environmental services staff say, too many systems weren’t confirmed at the time of sale, causing
finger-pointing between buyer and seller over who had to pay for the fix if the system was later found to be broken.
But Wisdorf said that problem can be solved by stricter enforcement after the sale. The buyer and seller could negotiate the septic issue at the time of the sale and the buyer would be forced to have the system tested when the ground thaws. If needed, the new buyer also would be forced to upgrade the system. And the buyer could face penalties if the tests aren’t conducted, she said.
The county is under a legislative mandate that all 87 counties update their rules on how rural properties, which are not hooked up to municipal sewage treatment systems, deal with their own sewage. By state law, the new county rules must be in place by Feb. 4.
The proposed new rules also call for “less restrictive compliance criteria” in some cases, broaden the use of holding tanks and change requirements for some homeowners when selling their property. The county says the new plans also allow more flexibility to approve locally designed septic treatment systems.
Holding tanks had been allowed only as a last resort for full-time residents that simply couldn’t find a workable treatment option. Under the new rules, however, residents could use holding tanks as their permanent solution. While cheaper to install, the tanks would need to be pumped out frequently and would cost far more in the long run, county officials said.
Another change allows systems that may not fit traditional specifications, such as mound size, but may be better suited for very wet environments, like much of St. Louis County’s lowlands.
Ted Troolin, the county’s environmental services director, said Tuesday that the Planning Commission could change the proposed rules or approve them as-is or send them back to county staff for more work. If the commission approves the rules, the County Board must still approve them after another public hearing. That wouldn’t happen until at least January, Troolin said.