Cooper: New love for septic tanks?

Cooper: New love for septic tanks?

February 12th, 2019 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

A worker adds siding to a home under construction in Ooltewah in 2016. A bill in the Tennessee legislature could give builders new incentive to start new homes in the area.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

As it stands now, builders of new homes to supply the fast-growing northeastern portion of the county have their hands tied.

Where sewers are available, a moratorium on new tie-ins is in place from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation because of the Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority's (WWTA) illegal release of two million gallons of raw sewage into Rogers Creek. But, because of the moratorium and the federal Environmental Protection Agency's concerns about the WWTA over its need for millions of dollars in maintenance, Hamilton County is not issuing septic tank permits in the area, either, according to state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga.

Since chamber pots and outhouses have fallen out of favor, builders have few options if they want to fulfill the need for new homes in a fast-growing part of the county.

Gardenhire and state Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, hope to remedy that in the state legislature with a bill that allows landowners in locations where there is a sewer tie-in moratorium to seek a septic tank. However, their proposed legislation says the permit holder for the septic tank "shall discontinue service to the sub-surface sewage disposal system and connect to the public sewer system within ninety (90) days of the moratorium being lifted."

An amendment to the bill was expected to be filed Monday that would clarify some of the language in the bill and resolve concerns about the legislation.

But, to our thinking, it is a reasonable, though potentially expensive, solution.

We say expensive because, should the law pass, someone with a lot who wants to build a house would first have to seek a permit for a septic tank. Getting the permit is no sure thing as the land must meet certain requirements, and the type of septic tank must fit the property.

Having absorbed the cost of the septic tank, though, the landowner would have to pony up again when any moratorium to connect with sewer service is lifted. Since sewer service already would be in place, the bill would not allow the landowner to continue to use only the septic tank and not pay the pricey cost to tie into the sewer system.

Sewer systems are not inexpensive for residents or for governments. Before forced annexation statewide ended in 2016, the city of Chattanooga had long eyed taking in subdivisions such as Hurricane Creek, Holly Hills, Valley View and Mountain Shadows in East Brainerd for the taxes they would generate but never made a play for them because of the cost the city would incur in putting sewers in each of the hilly neighborhoods.

Gardenhire's and Hazlewood's legislation, which would affect areas not just in Hamilton County but across the state where there is a sewer tie-in moratorium, is scheduled to be discussed in the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Subcommittee today and the Senate Energy, Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee Wednesday.

Bill passage this session and a signature by the governor potentially could begin a home and septic tank building bonanza July 1.

Without the bill, homebuilders — cognizant of the 1,000 new jobs Volkswagen will be adding to build a new electric car at its Chattanooga manufacturing plant — could be waiting awhile. Not only are they facing the sewer tie-in moratorium and a septic tank permit slowdown, but no current plan is in sight that would end that moratorium. County commissioners made sure of that when they voted down WWTA's desired location of a new sewage treatment plant on Mahan Gap Road last month.

Commissioners believe the negative outweighed the positive at the new sewage treatment plant site and felt there are other options — further connections to the city's Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant, a takeover of the WWTA by Tennessee-American Water Company or a sale of WWTA to an outside firm — for the county to explore.

Even if the county commission had OK'd a new sewage treatment plant, the WWTA's application said the process for permitting and construction would take five to seven years. None of the other options would result in an instantaneous lifting of the moratorium, either.

Builders, then, are unable to fill a need. Thus, the legislation seems all the more necessary.

It seems to us — if proper t's are crossed and i's dotted — it is the most appropriate and quickest way to fill the demand. Septic tanks, after all, can be permitted then installed in a matter of days, as opposed to treatment plants in years.

We hope this bill will be given serious consideration.

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