KALKASKA — Kalkaska County commissioners spent their Friday night in a special meeting about the effort to rescind a point-of-sale septic and water well inspection regulation, and after four hours of talks agreed to not yet decide.
Commissioner Leigh Ngirarsaol brought forward a community-generated proposal to develop a work group or ad hoc committee to serve in an advisory capacity to the full county board, charged with taking a deep dive on the issue. The group would review the current point-of-sale inspection ordinance and figure out what problems exist, then make recommendations on how to remedy any concerns.
Ngirarsaol also suggested the board wait to rescind the current rule and give the committee time to look for other solutions. Other commissioners agreed with her after a long conversation with dozens of people who attended the meeting to share their opinions with the elected leaders; commissioners unanimously voted to table the discussion about establishing a work group until a May 29 meeting when they will revisit the question.
Primarily real estate brokers have argued against the point-of-sale inspection regulation, contending it creates a backlog of land transactions awaiting inspection reports, plus doesn’t achieve its intended goal because of abundant exemptions. Contrarily, environmental advocates contend the program provides consumer protections, safe drinking water assurances and environmental conservation.
Nearly 50 people showed up for Friday's meeting, forcing the session out of the regular meeting room and into a courtroom in another building. It was a parade of lakeside residents who told commissioners one-by-one they want the point-of-sale inspection requirement to remain in place and be amended if there are problems with it rather than its outright repeal.
John Vella, who lives along Manistee Lake, said he's watched neighbors violate sanitary codes when it comes to septic systems and he wants commissioners to leave the safeguards on the books. He said it is realtors' responsibility to guide their seller clients through the process and that includes prior planning and scheduling inspections early in the process.
Vella also argued excessive loopholes in the code shouldn't be a reason to flush the rules, but instead be an impetus to tighten up the restrictions.
"I hope in the end we leave Kalkaska County a better area for our children and grandchildren," Vella said.
Lisa Delaney, also of Manistee Lake, said she fears commissioners will vote against the safety of water resources and instead let the financial concerns of the local real estate industry dictate their choice.
"If you have a county health program, you shouldn't be worrying about realtors' finances and sellers' ability to sell," Delaney said. "You should be concerned with the health of our families, water, groundwater and environment. Don't plan on my vote in your next election if you are not able to see the danger of removing the septic inspection program."
Mary Janik, a local realtor, was among the three people who criticized the program during public comments. She said the cost of the inspection — a $750 bill — is out of reach for some property sellers in Kalkaska County and she's never had a failed system turn up in the last 11 years since the regulation went into effect.
Seth Phillips, the county's drain commissioner, said the lack of failures doesn't indicate all inspected septic systems were 100 percent perfect. There is a sliding scale of conditions and only when the system has utterly failed and sewage is found above the ground is it deemed a failure and can officials take action, he said.
Commissioner Dave Comai said he wants to see a solution to the problem of septic systems only being inspected when property changes hands. Commissioner Patty Cox said she agreed and added the rule needs to be enforceable, adding that 11 exemptions to the current inspection rule is ineffective and "boggles" her mind.
"I think there needs to be something somehow that has more teeth," Cox said.
Commissioner Craig Crambell said he likes the committee idea, but first wants to know whether the county's townships wish to control point-of-sale inspections for themselves, or if they prefer it stay a countywide rule managed by the health department.
Meanwhile, suggestions for the makeup of the proposed ad hoc committee call for at least one county commissioner, the drain commissioner, a local realtor, an officer of a lake association in Kalkaska County, a representative from an environmental organization; a health department-approved septic and well inspection contractor, and anywhere between one and three at-large members of the public. More discussion is expected at the May 29 meeting.
Kevin Hughes, health officer for District Health Department No. 10, clarified for commissioners how they can make changes to the existing point-of-sale inspection ordinance that apply solely to Kalkaska County.
The Board of Health last month approved removal of Kalkaska County from the point-of-sale inspection program, and now the move must also be approved by the Boards of Commissioners for all 10 counties in the health district — Crawford, Kalkaska, Lake, Manistee, Mason, Mecosta, Missaukee, Newaygo, Oceana and Wexford — before the change will take effect. The request to bail out of the program was made last year by the previous county board.
Kalkaska and Manistee counties opted into the point-of-sale inspection regulation in 2009. Manistee County officials currently seek to tighten up the restriction and remove some of the exemptions to the rule.