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Cost Effective Limits of Community Sewer Systems

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Many older rural communities with on-site sewage disposal systems were platted with small lots, inadequate setbacks from surface waters and slopes, little consideration of soils, and few standards for septic tanks or drainfields. These systems are now frequently in failed conditions resulting in unhealthy disposal of sewage effluent.

Existing health regulations are written primarily to define conforming on-site sewage disposal systems for new construction. Existing homes that cannot conform to these standards are only permitted to build non-conforming on-site repairs. This means the homes cannot be rebuilt if lost to fire or other events, nor can significant remodeling be permitted. As a result, commercial lending is difficult, so resale usually means the owner must carry a contract and the property value is significantly discounted from its worth with a conforming sewage system. Many systems are therefore never repaired and the communities deteriorate due to unhealthy sewage management.

Community sewers are usually seen as the solution to failed on-site sewage disposal systems, and for many neighborhoods are quite feasible. However, the cost of sewers for some communities is prohibitive for a variety of reasons, but can be loosely described as constrained site conditions. It is rarely politically acceptable to condemn a community of existing homes, unless disease can clearly be identified due to untreated sewage; so the unhealthy conditions continue indefinitely.

Urbanizing areas like Puget Sound need to preserve existing homes wherever possible simply to maintain affordable housing. Managing growth becomes difficult once sewers are extended into areas intended to remain rural, which is a vehicle that promotes urban sprawl. So it is desirable to create sewage management solutions for rural communities that do not require sewers, particularly those on beaches.

A change in state law encompassing three components seems required:

Specific qualifications for individual homes within defined community boundaries to use proven on-site technology in creating high quality disinfected effluent at owner expense.

Verifiable performance through required home owner training, regular testing and reporting, periodic inspection, and collection of administrative fees – all bound into a contract recorded on the deed to run with the land and subject to oversight funded through a public agency.

Resulting on-site facility is approved as the permanent solution for the home, subject to programmed upgrade/replacement, and remodeling or rebuilding of the home is permitted within the regular zoning regulations as applicable to other homes with sewers.

Such a solution will promote the long-term viability of existing rural communities.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2003-01-01

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