MANISTEE — The debate about septic and water well inspections is destined to linger in Kalkaska County.
Manistee County commissioners voted 5-1 Tuesday to deny a request by Kalkaska County commissioners to withdraw from a point-of-sale inspection program first adopted nearly a dozen years ago.
The maneuver to dump the inspections in Kalkaska County came after almost a year of sometimes contentious public talks about the program’s pros and cons.
Kalkaska County commissioners voted last month to drop the program, but because of the way district health departments function, also required the approval of the boards from the other nine counties in the district. Eight counties that don’t participate in the program had already signed off by then, but not Manistee County.
Now commissioners in Manistee County used their veto power this week to force Kalkaska County’s continued participation in the septic and water well inspection program designed to provide consumer protections and both human health and environmental safeguards.
“This is a public health issue,” said Margaret Batzer, Manistee County commissioner who further underscored how the two communities share a watershed — which means whatever contaminants go into the Manistee River in Kalkaska eventually flow downstream to Manistee.
Public health and environmental concerns surrounding septic systems involve the risk of fecal contamination to both groundwater and surface water from old or faulty tanks and drain fields. That pollution can lead to both serious human illness and harmful environmental degradation.
The sole Manistee County commissioner who voted against denying Kalkaska County’s request to bail out of the program was Richard Schmidt.
“Myself? If they want to get out, fine,” he said.
Manistee County commissioner Pauline Jaquish said she understood the concerns raised by realtors in the Kalkaska area who criticized the program and were the first to request its disposal. After all, she said her work as a realtor meant years ago she faced the requirements in her county, too.
“It was one more hoop to jump through to make a sale,” Jaquish said.
However, she said she came to realize the benefits of having the program outweighed all that.
Criticisms of the policy in Kalkaska include the backlog of land transactions created while awaiting inspection reports, failure to achieve goals because of abundant exemptions, as well as government overreach.
Several Kalkaska County residents traveled to Manistee Tuesday morning to plead with commissioners there to force their own elected officials in Kalkaska back to the negotiation table.
After the vote, Manistee County commissioner Mark Bergstrom encouraged those Kalkaska County residents to go back and work with their own commissioners to improve the rules and address any concerns.
“This will give us some leverage,” said Seth Phillips, who led the community effort to maintain the septic and well inspections in Kalkaska County.
Phillips said he hopes Tuesday’s development will encourage Kalkaska County commissioners to finally create the ad hoc committee for this issue which they previously discussed.
Kalkaska County commissioners voted in May to table a suggestion by commissioner Leigh Ngirarsaol, who recommended a work group or ad hoc committee serve in an advisory capacity to the full county board, and be charged with taking a deep dive on the point-of-sale inspections debate.
Ngirarsaol could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday. She was the sole Kalkaska County commissioner to last month vote against dropping the inspections program.
Other Kalkaska County commissioners expressed dismay that Manistee County commissioners denied their request.
“I’m curious why they voted 5-1 to deny us when there are only two counties out of 10 that participate in this,” said Dave Comai, Kalkaska County commissioner. “It strikes me as odd.”
Kalkaska County commissioner Craig Crambell said “isn’t that something,” when told about Tuesday morning’s vote in Manistee.
He disagrees with a one-size-fits-all approach to septic and well inspections and believes it should be up to township officials to establish such regulations, he said.
“I really don’t know where it goes from here,” Crambell said.
Back in Manistee, local residents also encouraged their commissioners to deny Kalkaska County’s request.
Thomas Dane of Manistee Township said just because water comes out of a faucet doesn’t mean it’s safe.
He also said Manistee County — which recently adjusted its point-of-sale inspections program — is a role model for the state and should use its power to hold others accountable, too.
“In many respects, government’s job is to protect people from themselves,” Dane said.
Onekama resident Sharon Marie said she supports a statewide sanitary code that would require regular septic and water well inspections for everyone, not just when property is sold or exchanged. The groundwater in Michigan is a public trust resource, she said.
“We are sitting on the sixth Great Lake and it’s our job to protect it,” Marie said.
Manistee County commissioners recently voted to remove several exemptions to the point-of-sale inspections rule for their county, as well as extend the time period from 2 to 3 years that an inspection remains valid without another being required for a property sale.
Kalkaska County commissioners last month voted to approve those rule changes for Manistee County, as did those for the other eight counties in the health department district.
Michigan is the only state in the nation without a statewide sanitary code to regulate septic systems.