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May 10, 2012

Supervisors defer action on alternative septic systems

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DailyProgressBy Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Thursday, May 10, 2012

A recent change in Virginia regulations is forcing localities to allow rural property owners to install alternate septic systems, but Albemarle County has to change its rules to follow suit. 
 
“Our ordinance now doesn’t specifically allow for these alternate treatment systems,” said County Attorney Larry Davis. “It requires drain-fields and underground septic systems for development and we are not in compliance with the state mandate that we allow these systems.” 
 
Alternate septic systems use filters such as peat, plastic or sand to purify wastewater. They require less space than conventional septic fields and are regulated by the Virginia Department of Health. 
 
“A large house in the rural area may have a septic field that is 5,000 square feet in size,” said Mark Graham, the county’s director of community development. “There are probably alternative on-site systems for that same house that would fit in 500 square feet.” 
 
The Board of Supervisors was asked Wednesday to consider changes to the zoning to bring Albemarle into compliance. 
 
“The state’s perspective is that these systems are actually better than the conventional systems,” Graham said. “Under the Chesapeake Bay [total maximum daily loads], they’re even looking at going a step further and saying all new sewage systems would have to be one of these systems because of the ability to remove nitrogen.” 
 
The changes to state regulations also removed a requirement that alternative systems have an emergency drain-field in case of failure. 
 
That could open up development to some rural lots that currently do not have space for drain-fields. 
 
“Some existing lots that would not now be able to get a reserve drain-field may be able to develop,” said county engineer Glenn Brooks.
 
Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said she has been trying to keep the systems out of Albemarle County out of a concern for the potential environmental damage. 
 
“Some communities to the north have had spectacular failures of these things, especially on rocky soil,” Mallek said. “When they fail it’s a major blow-out and everything goes right into the stream. It’s not a trickle.”
 
Supervisor Christopher J. Dumler said he wanted to know more about potential environmental effects should things go wrong.
 
“It seems like the state says, ‘Open the door for this,’ and we’ve opened the door for it, but we’re not sure what the next step might be,” Dumler said. “Downsides may exist because it’s a new technology and I’m a little hesitant to approve it without knowing there might be some additional protections put in place.” 
 
Graham said the Virginia Department of Health could condemn a house with a septic failure until it is brought under control. Other than that, he said he was unsure what localities could do to ensure maintenance is being performed. He added the state is requiring annual inspections for the systems.
 
Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council urged supervisors to take their time before adopting the ordinance 
 
“The consensus is that if these things are maintained, they’re ideal,” Werner said. 
 
However, Werner said in many cases, filters are not changed frequently enough. 
 
“I know the state has mandated this, but let’s just do it right,” Werner said. 
Supervisors Kenneth C. Boyd and Duane E. Snow wanted to go ahead and approve the ordinance Wednesday and then amend it to add more protections if needed.
 
However, a majority decided to wait for further staff review. 
 
“I think there’s enough about this that we ought to find out about before we act,” Rooker said. He asked staff to work with the Virginia Association of Counties to find out what other jurisdictions are doing. 
 
Graham said staff would follow up on that request to see what additional standards the county can place on the systems before bringing it back to the board in June. 
 
“This worries me a lot, but I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it,” Mallek said.
 

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