Smart Growth and Septic System Innovation Go Hand in Hand

When communities on the edge of growing urban centers discuss community septic systems, installers should join the conversation

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Community septic systems — or cluster systems — can provide one good answer to ongoing issues of suburban sprawl in America. But a battle being waged between forces promoting more population density and those who cling to the age-old model of widely spread estates show why innovative shared onsite systems have not become more prevalent in the world of installers.

In a recent story out of Milton, Georgia, members of the City Council fought over whether to spend planning dollars to explore the concept of community septic systems. The city of Milton was formed from an unincorporated area north of Atlanta in 2006, a prototypical exurban community where people move to get away from the city, then often drive back downtown every day to work.

At issue is a dwindling amount of developable land and how it should be parceled. As explained in local Forsyth Herald coverage, one group of city leaders wants to consider promoting smaller residential lots and maintaining conservancy areas to preserve some rural landscape. Those plans would necessarily involve homeowners sharing onsite wastewater systems.

“The whole essence of what we are doing here is planning for the future, and if we deny that concept, I don’t think we are doing our jobs completely,” says council member Bill Lusk.
Other members of the City Council prefer to stick with larger lot sizes utilizing individual systems and oppose $20,000 to study the viability of community septic systems.

“I would rather see $20,000 spent on some kind of tax-incentive program so that people who do have larger parcels will keep the larger parcels or develop 3- to 5-acre lot subdivisions,” argues council member Karen Thurman.

Funding the study failed on a 4-3 vote.

SMART GROWTH

As the cost of remaining land around cities rises — and many communities lose an appetite to keep extending expensive sewer lines farther away from treatment plants — you will probably see more promotion of community septic systems in your world. Maybe you already have. Shared systems can make sense in many areas, and it seems this will only become a more popular idea as onsite technologies continue to improve, giving homeowners more economical and long-lasting wastewater options.

This plays into the concept of “smart growth,” something, by the way, that government leaders around Atlanta know nothing about or just plain don’t agree with. Why do I say that? Because Atlanta has long been considered an urban planning disaster. If you’ve ever driven through the city, you know it’s a tangled mess of highways that bottleneck downtown.

Smart growth, as defined by the American Planning Association, promotes “efficient and sustainable land development, incorporates redevelopment patterns that optimize prior infrastructure investments and consumes less land that is otherwise available for agriculture, open space, natural systems and rural lifestyle. … Smart growth is about tailoring choices for individual settings; it may well mean offering smaller detached homes on smaller lots within walking distance of schools and amenities. … This approach to growth and planning cannot only deliver dynamic, attractive communities with greater choices for consumers, but can be a powerful tool for farmland, open space and habitat preservation.”

NEED HOUSING OPTIONS

The good people of Milton reflect Atlanta’s history of wariness over the idea of smart growth. The city makes several worst urban design lists, including one from www.escapehere.com:

“Traffic doesn’t get much worse than this city, and in fact, the traffic here is legendary. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a boom in Atlanta that caused a massive urban sprawl, and along with poorly situated highways, there seems to be no hope in terms of it getting any better. Unless something drastic happens in this city, expect that the poor design will continue for decades.”

So it seems that this booming southern metropolis has been shortsighted in its planning for years. That said, I have nothing against large single-family homes occupying 5-acre lots. If that’s what people want, they should be able to have it (as long as they can afford the cost). However, I do feel it’s important to offer a variety of housing choices that fit various lifestyles. This should include new homes on small lots as well as condominiums or apartments located in outlying areas and served by onsite wastewater systems.

Those who want the 5,000-square-foot home on an estate property in the country should remember that people go through different phases in their lives and they may choose to downsize at some point. Kids move away, health problems restrict their ability to do yardwork, or they simply can’t afford the big house in retirement. Without many options for living arrangements, they may not be able to stay in the community they love.

TIME TO EDUCATE

Onsite installers have a vested interest and community responsibility when it comes to these urban planning issues. First, you recognize that in many cases extension of the big pipe is only feasible to some distance from city centers. Beyond that, septic systems are going to continue to be an important element of the planning process. You want to be a part of that decision-making process.

Also, you know how outside-the-box system design and new decentralized wastewater treatment technologies are improving in dynamic ways. Quite simply, the treatment capabilities we see today are not your grandfather’s septic systems. It benefits you and the industry to spread the word about clean and efficient wastewater treatment.

As an educated installer or designer, you can demystify modern septic systems for the laymen and women who serve on City Councils like the one in Milton and make them more comfortable with concepts like community septic. Together with smart growth advocates, you can explain how today’s onsite systems — whether they serve an individual house or 150 homes in a subdivision — can be a suitable, permanent and effective wastewater solution.

Community leaders need to be made to understand the value of diverse development and the role onsite systems can play in building sustainable communities where people will want to live through all stages of life. This is an important message that we can and must share when smart growth issues are discussed.



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