TRAVERSE CITY — Debate over Leelanau County's septic system regulations will resurface after receiving initial resistance.
Commissioners agreed to consider a Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department Board of Health-approved recommendation that Leelanau County officials adopt a countywide septic ordinance, said Leelanau County Commissioner Ty Wessell. He said the ordinance would regulate septic systems and increase inspections.
A previous effort by Wessell last July to create and task a committee to consider and help create such an ordinance failed to gain enough support among his fellow commissioners. He plans to pitch the committee idea again at their meeting Nov. 14.
“I’m optimistic we will have a septic ordinance,” he said. “But I’d like to have one that is thoroughly researched and ready to go.”
Commissioner Melinda Lautner, who also is the board of health’s chairwoman, opposed Wessell’s original call for a septic system committee and cast the only vote against the board of health’s septic system ordinance recommendation that passed 3-1 at their meeting Sept. 28.
Two board of health members — Benzie County Commissioner Roger Griner and Leelanau County Commissioner Casey Noonan — did not attend the meeting, leaving both counties short one representative. Lautner knew she would be outvoted and argued the vote should have been rescheduled to allow the entire board to weigh in.
Lautner subsequently called for an investigation into the legality of the vote, but legal counsel shared no concerns, according to email correspondence.
She further cast her vote out of opposition to the idea of overarching regulations.
“I have always been opposed to blanket regulations for Leelanau County,” she said. “Leelanau County is so diversified. Sometimes, when there is something that is really good for one part of the county, it might not be good for another part of the county.”
Some responsibility should instead be placed on realtors, who should be required to pursue septic system inspections themselves, perhaps at the point of listing a home, Lautner said. The point of sale regulations county officials may consider could delay such home sales, she said.
Tom Fountain, the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department’s environmental health director, said requiring point of sale inspections “makes sense.” Regulations in place adequately cover new construction projects, but older septic systems exist throughout the county, some Fountain considers “questionable” that were built before any regulations were enacted.
“If repairs are needed, that would be a good time,” he said.
He warned officials should also keep their eyes on Lansing, where he heard Gov. Rick Snyder may push for a statewide point of sale septic inspection requirement before he leaves office at the end of this term.
Individual townships and villages would be better suited to address implementation of septic system ordinances, Lautner said.
Property owners also should shoulder some of this responsibility, she said.
“If a septic system fails, it doesn’t go down to the ground water,” she said. “It stops filtering down and comes up to the surface. Then people can look out to their lawn and notice there’s a problem. At that point they should be addressing the problem.”
Wessell said the only way to determine if a septic tank is failing is through testing. Without proper testing, he fears some systems may be spilling into the county’s waters.
The inspections themselves do not have to be the county’s responsibility, he said. Property owners should be allowed to consider hiring private businesses to do the work, Wessell said.
Regardless of who’s responsibility it should be, he said the testing needs to be completed.
“We know that there are septic systems in the county that have never been tested and we know there are septic systems in the county that were constructed before there were any standards at all,” Wessell said. “It’s not a partisan issue, it’s a public health issue.”