Florida Legislature Revisits Onsite Inspection Requirement

A new state Legislature is in office in Florida, and one of the early bills introduced in Tallahassee would establish inspection standards for onsite wastewater systems.  

HB 85 came from Rep. Will Robinson, R-Bradenton, who says one of his campaign issues was solving the problem of the Indian River Lagoon. The lagoon is formed by the Indian River where it runs between the mainland and barrier islands on the state’s eastern shore. It stretches about 100 miles from about Orlando south to near Miami, and it has been plagued by algae blooms in part attributed to untreated wastewater from onsite systems.

“I heard about nothing else more than red tide during the course of my campaign,” Robinson tells Florida Politics. “Even at my victory party, a supporter said to me, ‘Will, do something. Big or small, do something about red tide.’ ”

Robinson’s bill would require the state Health Department to identify all onsite systems in the state and compile that information in a database. Beginning in 2022, the bill would require onsite systems to be inspected at least every five years unless the system is covered by an operating permit.

A companion bill in the state Senate (SB 214) has already picked up an endorsement from the Naples Daily News. The newspaper writes such rules are a necessary step in the struggle to improve the state’s water quality. And while there are numerous causes of water pollution, the paper writes, “It’s unreasonable to assume that septic tanks aren’t part of the problem as well.”

The bill contains a couple of surprises, says Roxanne Groover, executive director of the Florida Onsite Wastewater Association.

One is the existence of that companion bill in the Senate. It’s unusual to have bills moving simultaneously in both houses of the Legislature, she says. This may indicate that the thinking of legislators has moved beyond where it was a couple of years ago when a similar bill failed to pass.

In the meantime, Florida news has been full of stories about algae blooms and red tides, and that may have built public demand for action. The danger with HB 85 is that people will heap too many expectations on it, Groover says. Lawmakers think requiring maintenance will take care of the blue-green algae blooms and the red tide, she says. Everyone agrees maintenance is good, she says, but “everyone knows from the science of nitrogen reduction that it’s hard to find what causes red tides. This (bill) is not the silver bullet.”

Groover says that while the state Health Department would be required to compile information about onsite systems, it could do so only from existing information such as plans on record. The bill expressly forbids department staff from making a site visit.

A possible obstacle to HB 85 is in the history Groover mentioned. Two years ago, a bill was introduced that would have mandated onsite system inspections when a property is sold. The bill didn’t make it in the face of complaints from the real-estate industry, which worried that inspections could slow home sales and burden homeowners with unanticipated costs. Required inspections were dropped in favor of a form telling buyers that systems should be inspected every three to five years. The watered-down bill passed the House 117-2, but it died in a Senate committee.

South Dakota

A petition questioning the ability of municipalities to regulate onsite systems will be withdrawn, says a new majority of the West Dakota Water Development District. Early this year, the board voted 6-3 to end its petition to the State Water Management Board.

Last summer, the former district board voted to ask the state board whether onsite systems installed before 1975 are subject to local regulations. Later the district board voted to spend up to $7,500 for a lawyer to advocate for the petition before the state board. The money and petition aided former Pennington County Commissioner George Ferebee who has spent years opposing local regulation of onsite systems. He got into legal trouble with the county over his own system.

Many members of the public were outraged at the district water board’s use of taxpayer dollars in this way, and in the fall election they replaced three members of the board with people who opposed the petition and the expenditure.


The health board for the town of Westport is debating whether to require homeowners to spend money on denitrifying onsite systems. The board has been asked to consider such a regulation as part of continuing work to reduce nitrogen pollution in the east branch of the Westport River.

At a December meeting, opinion was split on when and whether the board should take action. Chairman William Harkins suggested stormwater runoff may be a larger problem than onsite systems. Some town officials say action should wait until the results of a $180,000 study are in. The board’s vice chairman Maury May says homes in more affluent areas should be required to install denitrifying systems, but not homes whose owners are financially stretched, reports The Herald News of New Bedford.

Westport is located on the south coast of Massachusetts and borders Rhode Island.

New Jersey

Gov. Phil Murphy is dropping a proposed rule that would have allowed more development in the Highlands region by increasing the density of onsite systems. This region of northern New Jersey is the source of drinking water for Newark and Jersey City, among other areas.

Former Gov. Chris Christie proposed the rule to allow one onsite system per 25 acres of forested land instead of the one system for each 88 acres allowed under a 2004 law. That law, the Highlands Act, was applauded by conservationists but opposed by people who say it unfairly reduced the value of their property.

The Christie rule was already in jeopardy when Murphy killed it. In a rare use of their constitutional power, the state Senate and Assembly voted in January 2018 to invalidate the Christie rule, saying it violated the intent of the Highlands Act.

Yet the standard may still change. Some lawmakers say the 2004 density rule retards growth of the Highlands’ economy. The state Department of Environmental Protection says it would re-evaluate the evidence compiled by the Christie administration and consider what onsite density standard is appropriate.

New York

East Hampton Village is considering a code amendment that would require advanced onsite systems for new homes and large home expansions. The proposal follows actions by other communities in Suffolk County, and the county itself, that require denitrifying systems.

Suffolk County, which occupies the eastern end of Long Island and includes the wealthy Hamptons communities, has thousands of homes that use cesspools for onsite treatment. Laws to require advanced onsite systems are intended to help solve water-quality problems along the county’s shore.

At a working meeting, former Village Administrator Larry Cantwell told the East Hampton board he supports the code amendment, but he said it falls short because it would allow people to replace existing systems without upgrading to advanced technology systems.

In a related matter, nearby Shelter Island is considering requiring a denitrifying onsite system for any real-estate sale. The island is on the north side of Long Island, while East Hampton is on the south shore. It will be up to the Shelter Island board to decide whether the requirement would apply to all property transfers or only sales, who would be responsible for the cost and whether property owners would have a required time to comply.


Allen County is considering changes to its onsite ordinance that could increase costs for homeowners by several hundred dollars. The county is in northern Indiana and includes the city of Fort Wayne. “A good portion of what we’ve proposed are clarifications on the intent of the rules,” says Health Department Administrator Mindy Waldron, according to The Journal Gazette.

She says the department looked at 14 years of data from the county’s water management district in compiling its suggested changes. Most of those include best practices used in the industry for 25 years, she says.

There would be a ban on flexible couplings secured to sewer pipes by steel hose clamps unless the connection is to an existing sewer pipe made of a material not compatible with the pipe installed. Onsite systems would require a clean-out for a visual inspection.

“There is, to be honest, potential for some requirements to be several hundred dollars more for certain types of systems, to make sure they have the right type of electrical panel or junction box, those types of things,” Waldron says. “But when you amortize that over the life of the system, about 10 to 30 years, a few hundred dollars is a drop in the bucket compared to one sewage backup into your home or the potential for early (system) failure.”


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