Rules & Regs: Florida Bill Seeks to Establish Onsite Inspection Standards

Also in this month's regulations update, Massachusetts could require homeowners to buy denitrifying systems

Rules & Regs: Florida Bill Seeks to Establish Onsite Inspection Standards

A new 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 the latitude of Orlando to just north of greater Miami, and it has been plagued by algae blooms attributed to untreated wastewater from onsite systems.

“I heard about nothing else more than red tide during the course of my campaign,” Robinson says to 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 once 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. Although a potentially expensive requirement for homeowners, 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 demands 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. 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.”

Another problem with the bill, according to Groover, is it does not repeal inspection language put into law in 2012. Florida now permits voluntary inspections, and HB 85 uses some of the same language for its mandatory inspections. By not removing the 2012 language, the bill prohibits some of what can be done now and sets up a conflict with that older language, Groover says. It may be that the people who drafted HB 85 are not aware of that older language, she says.

Also, 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.

Another possible obstacle to HB 85 is the history of previous related bills. Two years ago, Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, introduced a bill that would have mandated onsite system inspections when a property was sold. Fine’s district includes part of the Indian River Lagoon.

His 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, there were changes. 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.

Florida’s Legislature won’t start its floor sessions (when the full House and Senate meet to vote on bills) until March, but critical work is happening now. Committees are at work, Groover says, and it’s possible HB 85 will be modified, passed in committee and be ready for introduction on the floor of the Legislature as soon as the floor period opens.


South Dakota petition on municipal authority discarded

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 in South Dakota. On Jan. 7 the board voted 6-3 to end its petition to the State Water Management Board.

In July, the old district board voted to ask the state board whether onsite systems installed before 1975 are subject to local regulations. In October 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 November election, they replaced three members of the board with people who opposed the petition and the expenditure.

New board member Dan Driscoll says he talked to many people about the petition during his campaign for a board seat. “Categorically, I heard no support whatsoever for this issue, and categorically what I heard was disbelief that taxpayer dollars were being used to fund this effort,” he says, according to the Rapid City Journal.


Massachusetts could require homeowners to buy denitrifying systems

The health board for the town of Westport, Massachusetts, 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. Board Chairman William Harkins suggested stormwater runoff might 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.

John Bullard of the Buzzards Bay Coalition urged the board to start writing a regulation. “There is an adage: If you want to get out of a hole, stop digging,” he says.

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


Governor scraps the Highlands Act in 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 Highland’s 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.


Village in New York could require advanced onsite systems

East Hampton Village, New York, 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 that he supports the code amendment, but he says 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.

The idea was floated at a December working session of the Shelter Island Town Board. It will be up to the 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. The town already mandates denitrifying systems for new construction with more than 1,500 square feet of living area and for any county-required onsite upgrades.


Indiana county considers changes to onsite ordinance

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 be required to have 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 failure.”



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