NASHVILLE — Hamilton County legislators are trying to figure out how to plug problems with their bill to let Ooltewah area property owners and home builders install septic tanks for new homes and residential projects in light of the county's current ban on new sewer hookups there.
"I don't know where it stands," Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, told the Times Free Press last week about the bill's status. "There's a concern that people will have to pay twice for a service," meaning once for a septic tank when buying the home and later to hook up to the sewer system whenever service is actually available.
The county's Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority imposed the moratorium in November on new sewer hookups on orders from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation as the authority continues to struggle with sewer overflows in Ooltewah.
Gardenhire and Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, are pressing the bill in the General Assembly at the request of the Homebuilders Association of Greater Chattanooga Association. The group's members are concerned about the impact of the ban on new sewer hookups for property owners and development projects in fast-growing areas of eastern Hamilton County served by WWTA.
There's a current 90-day state requirement that homes with "access" to sewer lines hook up to the system. Technically, a number of properties have access but actually now don't because of the moratorium. So, home builders want official permission from the state to build housing that relies on septic tanks.
The sponsors and others are also grappling with how best to provide sufficient notice to prospective home buyers in affected areas on what they may be getting into by purchasing a new house with a septic tank that will, presumably, need to be replaced at some point with an expensive sewer tie-in.
"How do we properly disclose" to make it fully clear to prospective buyers about the requirement to hook up to the sewer system when it is accessible, Gardenhire said. "How do we treat those people?"
"Everyone says 'Read the disclosure'" when purchasers close on the house, Gardenhire said.
But he noted buyers are already faced with quickly signing multiple documents, often lengthy, highly technical and packed with legal jargon in which buyers agree to various provisions and obligations.
Gardenhire, whose district includes Ooltewah, wants to ensure warnings won't be glossed over by anyone.
"What happens a year or two later and they're hit with a pretty sizable fee?" he asked. "You signed it, good luck? Signing a disclosure in a half-inch stack of documents is not going to do it."
After delaying the bill last week in committee, Gardenhire has tentatively scheduled it to be heard Feb. 27.
Hazlewood, who took her bill off notice for now as problems multiplied, said last week there's also been discussion about whether a bill is even needed and that the goal might be achieved through a TDEC rule. She acknowledged "there just were a lot more concerns expressed than we were able to address and get the bill moving" last week.
The representative said it's "the same issue that we talked about before — how do you define accessibility? If the sewers are in front of your property, does that make it accessible even though there's a moratorium and you can't hook into it? My perception is that it's not really accessible if you can't use it."
Meanwhile, members of the Sierra Club's Tennessee chapter are concerned, too.
"Places like Hamilton County have taken over responsibility for septic fields because it's better to handle this stuff via an actual sewage treatment system," Scott Banbury, the group's conservation program coordinator, recently said.
Septic tanks, typically placed underground, are used collect sewage. They allow fecal and other waste to decompose through bacterial activity before draining by means of a leaching field.
Banbury said he and others are worried about issues such as when underground limestone is eroded. The group also wants to ensure any permits issued "follow the best guidelines, the rules that the state of Tennessee has set up in terms of doing soil testing, what we call 'perc' testing."
And the Sierra Club is also concerned with purchasers clearly understanding up front what they're buying into.
The sewer moratorium is just one of a number of issues the county's sewer authority is grappling with.
WWTA is expected soon to sign an expensive consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address its leaks and releases of raw sewage.
Meanwhile, authority officials had planned to build a $45 million to $48 million sewage treatment plant on Mahan Gap Road. But Hamilton County Commission members in December voted down a special permit for that amid a wave of opposition from North Ooltewah homeowners fearful and upset over impact of a sewage plant near them.
Officials are now planning to spend some $200 million building storage tanks for wastewater and bigger lines to ship waste to Chattanooga's Moccasin Bend Sewage Treatment Plant from existing lines, as well as new ones expected to be needed.
Some, including Hamilton County Commissioner Chester Bankston, are talking about selling WWTA.
Tennessee American Water Co., a subsidiary of the publicly traded American Water Works Company, Inc., which supplies Chattanooga with its drinking water, has said it is interested if the WWTA decides to issue a request for proposals from potential buyers.
But another county commissioner, David Sharpe, said, "I just don't think that's the right way to go. I think our growth should stay in the hands of Hamilton County. We should control our own destiny."
Just last week, the sewer authority's executive director, Mark Harrison, resigned. WWTA's chief engineer, Mike Patrick, has been named in the interim as acting executive director as the authority seeks a replacement for Harrison.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.