Group asks county for clarity in septic regulations

A stakeholder interest group recently presented its first revision phase on the County's wastewater regulations, with an emphasis on clearer communication about what is required to achieve and maintain compliance with wastewater systems.

The revisions focus on bedroom definitions, different compliance consequences, and appropriate and achievable compliance.

Joan Mell, an attorney who represents the advocacy group of real estate agents, septic pumpers and homeowners, said homeowners and property owners have continually received mixed feedback about what they need to do to comply with the regulations.

“This is about taking a look at what we started,” Joan Mell of III Branches Law told the Ravalli County Board of Health. “And will this board participate or encourage it and provide its expertise to those stakeholders who are willing to do the work and clarify the rules so that ultimately there is consistency, clarity, transparency and fairness and application of the board's rules can?”

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Mell said there is currently no equity in the county health department. She called for greater accountability for what happens at the question stage, where people want to better understand the rules governing septic development.

She said there have currently been repeated inconsistencies in the rules property owners should follow when speaking to paramedics.

“Everyone comes to the table and tries to make it work and they get inconsistent information, no information or inaccurate information,” Mell said. “I mean, there are all sorts of variations right now.”

Additionally, paramedics refused to be included in discussions with owners about compliance measures, a violation of typical expectations of officials. She also mentioned “very disturbing” cases in which individuals from the county came to test septic systems and show they were in compliance, but the same measurement was later dramatically off.

Commissioner Jeff Burrows was surprised that he had never heard this before and expressed interest in setting up a hearing for individuals to share their experiences. Mell said that wasn't necessary, while another local real estate agent at the meeting expressed that some of his clients were afraid of retaliation.

“I think there are some things we can do together to create clarity on both sides,” Mell said.

Local broker Claire Kemp of Berkshire Hathaway said there have been cases where she has worked to obtain permits for a property to understand septic system requirements before selling, but the county has ignored her requests. This can leave the real estate agent, and therefore the future homeowner, uncertain about what is expected of the wastewater disposal and the capacity of the septic system, potentially leading to overloading of the system and contamination of nearby wells and bodies of water. It can also result in real estate agents selling homes that already have non-compliant septic systems.

Additionally, Mell said communication flow and transparency were a common topic of discussion. Triggering unexpected compliance inspections and orders is a common problem for real estate agents when attempting to assist in obtaining septic tank permits, making them less willing to engage in these inquiries as it ultimately slows down the sales process .

Burrows repeatedly expressed disappointment that he hadn't heard anything at Wednesday's meeting, but again asked for more specific stories before taking direct action.

“This is what I want to say: It’s OK for you to come to me and prove that,” Burrows said. “We will fire someone if that is the case. I mean, it's just that simple. . . You should feel comfortable calling me and saying, 'Hey, I was really abused by a paramedic yesterday, and here's the problem.' And there will be no repercussions or consequences for the person who comes forward.'”

The health department plans to review the updates later this year, with the panel seeking more details on legal details and the county's previous actions within the health department.

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