Septic rules hard on small lots

How Island County residents maintain their septic systems is a-changin’ and Dec. 14, people had an opportunity to hear how.

The Washington State Board of Health sponsored a workshop to present the proposed changes to the state’s system regulations. More than 80 people squeezed into the Island County Commissioners Hearing Room in Coupeville and another 15 gathered on Camano Island to hear the changes.

One of the biggest modifications to state septic rules will a reclassification of the soil types. This will affect the allowable size of drainfields, said septic designer Reid Tascia.

The reclassification lowers the amount of runoff allowable from septic systems. This dramatically increases the size of the required drainfields, Tascia said.

“It’s going to stop development of small lots up and down the island,” he said.

Mike Trask, a partner at Diamond Construction and a licensed installer, said the restrictions will make designing a new system much more difficult.

“People buy these lots with the idea of building a retirement home,” he said. “And 20 years later, they want to build their home and they can’t.”

Systems that are already installed will be grandfathered in under the new rules, but any upgrades or major repairs must comply with the changes.

The state’s Rules Development Committee, of which Tascia is a member, proposed the changes in an effort to modernize the regulations, which have not been updated since 1994. Approximately 70 percent of Island County homes have septic systems.

Tascia said he is preparing a presentation detailing how changes in septic rules will increase property owners’ costs in Island County. The main impact will be the amount of land needed for larger drain fields. In places such as Smuggler’s Cove — where beachfront and hillside water-view lots are popular — smaller lots will be undevelopable, he said.

“We won’t have enough land to put the drainfields in,” he said.

Still, Island County can make some changes in its own septic rules that could offset the changes the state is proposing to make. Island County requires septic designers to plan residential systems based a figure of 150 gallons of waste water per day per bedroom. The state’s minimum design figure is 120 gallons. Dropping to the state minimum could help cancel out the changes that will result from soil reclassification, Tascia said.

The proposed regulations also call for more stringent inspection requirements. Septic owners would be required to have an inspection at least once every three years. Some systems would require an annual inspection.

“I guess I’m in favor of having septic checked,” Trask said. “But, having it done one time each year is a heavy-duty thing.”

He said he can estimate how often an inspection is necessary based on a family’s output. Inspections are necessary, however, Trask said.

“It’s like checking or changing the oil in a car — a lack of maintenance does promote failure,” he said.

The Island County Health Department does not specifically keep track of the number of septic failures on an annual basis.

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