Environmentalists concerned over new septic system rules

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(Host) A legislative committee has approved new rules for septic systems that will make it easier for people to build on smaller lots.

The state says the changes will protect ground water and public health. But environmentalists are concerned that more land will now be open to development.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) As every land owner knows the key question for a piece of property is: will it perk? That means, does the property have soils that will percolate so a septic system can safely handle wastewater.

As of July 1, there was a huge change in septic system regulation. The state took over the permitting of the systems from individual towns.

And this week, a joint legislative committee gave its final approval, with one exception, to rules that implement the law.

Jeffrey Wennberg is the commissioner of environmental conservation. He says the rules advance the Douglas Administration’s goal of making housing more affordable.

(Wennberg) "What we’ve done here is we’ve tweaked the rules that allow people to build safely on smaller lots."

(Dillon) But a leading environmental group says the changes will open up more land for development, and therefore increase sprawl. Jon Groveman represents the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

He says the state has tried to steer development toward city centers to control sprawl.

(Groveman) "And policy proposals like this are very detrimental to that effort. And the agency says that it’s concerned about sprawl and its impacts, but in enacting a change like this, their actions do not show that they’re concerned."

(Dillon) Wennberg says the new rules are likely to trigger development on smaller lots within towns and growth centers.

(Wennberg) "And you are going to be encouraging cluster development. And that’s what these rules we expect are actually going to accomplish. So I think VNRC has got it absolutely backwards."

(Dillon) Because the rules will allow more land to be developed, towns were supposed to adjust with changes in zoning by-laws. The zoning amendments would guide where new development could occur.

But Orange County Senator Mark McDonald told Commissioner Wennberg that the state didn’t give towns enough time to make the changes.

(McDonald) "When you have a five-year transition period where you either act or the following takes place. That is an honest, fair and straightforward proposal. But when you have a five-year transition period, and it’s pot luck at the end of those five years, that’s not the way state government is supposed to behave."

(Dillon) Wennberg says the state did give towns enough time to plan. And he says some towns are reluctant to change their zoning or enact zoning at all, despite the new septic rules.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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