KALKASKA — Officials flushed the point-of-sale septic and well inspection program for Kalkaska County.
County commissioners voted 6-1 Wednesday to withdraw from the program operated by its District Health Department No. 10. Commissioner Leigh Ngirarsaol was the sole dissenter.
“My constituents were very soundly against getting out of point-of-sale,” Ngirarsaol said.
The only other county in the 10-county district which participated in the 11-year-old program is Manistee County, where officials recently made changes to the point-of-sale rules.
But Kalkaska County commissioners have discussed dropping out of the inspection program since November last year, when a board not yet changed by that month’s election results voted to make a change that requires consent from the other nine counties in the health department district.
Since then, commissioners have for 10 months faced crowds during meetings when the program was discussed, with those showing up largely in favor of the countywide policy. But commissioners delayed their final drop out vote until this week — which happens to coincide with both the state and nationally designated SepticSmart Week when homeowners and communities are encouraged to properly maintain septic systems.
The irony was not lost on the more than a dozen who showed up for Wednesday’s meeting to protest the action.
“It’s the job of you, our government, to protect our waters,” said Charlie Weaver of Bear Lake Township, before commissioners gave the program the ax.
Advocates for the program argue it provides consumer protections, safe drinking water assurances and environmental conservation.
Those critical of the point-of-sale inspections argue the policy creates a backlog of land transactions awaiting inspection reports, plus doesn’t achieve its intended goal because of abundant exemptions.
Weaver said rather than repealing the program, commissioners ought to have changed what they didn’t like, as Manistee County commissioners did.
There they eliminated several exemptions and extended from 2- to 3- years the window within which a property sale can happen after an inspection without another being required.
At least one commissioner agreed.
“I thought maybe the county should have looked at modifying it or even doing the committee to look into this,” Ngirarsaol said.
Kalkaska County commissioners repeatedly discussed the creation of an ad hoc advisory committee to explore any concerns with the regulation and then report back to the board, but never voted to establish one during the months of discussion and debate.
Instead, Weaver accused Kalkaska County commissioners of pandering to pressure, and not from their constituents.
“Realtors should not be driving public policy. They should be part of it, but not driving it,” he said.
Bob Murray, associate real estate broker at Coldwell Banker in Kalkaska, on Thursday said he’s glad county commissioners voted to repeal the program.
He argued no realtor wants to see the environment left unprotected, but they wanted the repeal of what they saw as a problematic and cumbersome regulation that didn’t achieve its goal because it didn’t have enough enforcement teeth.
“There were not enough guts to enforce anything the way it was written,” Murray said.
Only when a septic system completely failed and sewage was found on the ground could officials force a homeowner into compliance, and that wasn’t enough, he argued.
Murray was among the trio of real estate professionals who raised concerns to commissioners in November last year, meeting minutes show.
Kalkaska County commissioner John West said he was not pandering to anyone and the situation is not about having “no concern for our water.”
He truly believes townships should regulate this issue rather than a countywide policy, he said.
Seth Phillips, of Coldsprings Township, has campaigned against the repeal of the point-of-sale inspection program for months. He said he wasn’t surprised by the commissioners’ action and attended Wednesday’s meeting to “bear witness to a failure of government.”
Former Kalkaska County commissioner Lou Nemeth attended Wednesday’s meeting. He served on the board when the policy was first adopted and criticized current commissioners for their choice this week.
“I think they didn’t do their job and their job is protecting the health of their constituents,” Nemeth said.
Phillips said there is one Hail Mary play left for septic inspection supporters before the policy goes kaput.
The Manistee County Board is the last among the 10 within the health department district to vote on Kalkaska County’s request to withdraw from the policy. Without its approval, officials in Kalkaska County will be stuck with the regulations adopted nearly a dozen years ago.
Manistee County commissioners last considered Kalkaska County’s request in July, but a motion to approve it died for lack of support. That means a second Manistee County commissioner did not support Kalkaska County’s withdrawal request, even enough to bring the question to a full board vote.
Jeff Dontz, chairman of Manistee County’s board, said commissioners there will again take up Kalkaska County’s request at their Oct. 22 meeting.
Phillips said he intends to attend that morning meeting next month in Manistee in hopes of convincing Manistee County commissioners to vote against Kalkaska County’s request to quit the program.
Meanwhile, Michigan is the only state in the nation without a statewide sanitary code. In recent years, the creation of such a code for Michigan has repeatedly appeared on the legislative agenda in Lansing.
Most recently, two bills were introduced in 2018 but faced opposition and died during the lame duck session at the end of the year.
Dendra Best, executive director for Traverse City-based nonprofit Wastewater Education, said the development of a statewide septic code that addresses septic systems is far more complicated than many realize. It’s a process that should rightfully take time, she said.
“This should take time. It’s not about throwing something at the wall and hoping it sticks,” Best said.
Michigan would do well to follow Ohio’s example, she said, where it took four years for officials to draft 120 pages of comprehensive rules that holds all to the same standards. It’s more than point-of-sale policies or rules that apply solely at the time of initial construction, she said.
The nonprofit organization’s leader also underscored how the handling and treatment of wastewater is about both environmental protections and health and human safety. More information about the group is available at wastewatereducation.org online.