Septic Systems Spur Debate over Development

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(Host) The Legislature is trying to break an impasse over regulation of home septic systems. State environmental officials say the legislation will result in cleaner systems that don’t pollute groundwater. But some environmentalists worry that the law could open hundreds of thousands of acres to new development.

VPR’s John Dillon has more.

(Dillon) Environmental Conservation Commissioner Chris Recchia has spent many hours at the Statehouse the past few weeks. He’s tried to forge a compromise on a bill that overhauls the state’s regulation of home septic systems.

For about a decade, the state has tried to close a loophole that exempts septic systems from regulation if they’re built on lots larger than 10 acres.

This bill would close the 10-acre loophole. It also allows homeowners to use alternative septic system technology on sites where conventional systems won’t work. Recchia has called the legislation the most significant environmental bill of the year.

(Recchia) “What this bill does for the first time after a nine year struggle, is to eliminate four different sections of statute that regulate septic systems and consolidate them into one place so people can find them. It allows for municipal delegation of the program so that where a town is interested and willing to take on the program, they can. They don’t have to. But in those circumstances that they do, people are only required to get one permit. They either get it from the town or they get it from the state.”

(Dillon) Recchia says that right now someone might have to get four different permits for a home septic system. He says only Vermont and Texas lack a statewide system of septic regulation.

Environmentalists are divided over the bill. Elizabeth Courtney, director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, likes the legislation because it eliminates the ten acre loophole. She says the bill also requires the Agency of Natural Resources to map groundwater aquifers so the state will know which areas to protect.

The bill allows new home sites on steep slopes of up to 20% grade. Courtney says that provision is better than the original language:

(Courtney) “We were successful in getting the state to scale back into allowing up to 20% slopes for developments with new innovative technologies, as opposed to 30% that they had been proposing all along.”

(Dillon) The alternative waste disposal systems could be used on land that was previously closed to development. Perhaps the lot was on a steep hillside, or maybe the soils were too wet or contained clay that could not absorb new waste water.

Some environmentalists are still worried that the legislation would lead to more development in the state. Mark Sinclair is with the Conservation Law Foundation:

(Sinclair) “It could change the way our rural landscape looks. We’re going to see a lot more loss of farmland, is the bottom line, by allowing new septic technology that has not been proven will work. And there’s been no requirement for towns who are going to allow the use of this technology that they have better zoning regulations to ensure that we’re not losing farmlands and important resource areas to new housing subdivisions.”

(Dillon) The House will take up the septic bill when members return to Montpelier later this week.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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