Septic tank rules might hurt small landowners

A farmer wants to divide his property among his children, so they can build homes for their families. An avid hunter hopes to build a cabin on a ridge west of Blue Knob. A restaurateur lays out a plan for a business in a rural area.

All these people could be affected by a controversial policy that’s set for another month of discussion before a possible adoption later this year.

Its name doesn’t grab much attention – “Draft Technical Guidance for Onlot Sewage Systems in HQ/EV” – but for small-scale landowners and developers in parts of the region, the proposal would mean new regulations and, in many cases, added expense when constructing homes and businesses.

“You have a guy. He maybe owns 10 acres. … They subdivide it and give each kid 2 acres. Those are the people this is going to impact,” Bedford County Planning Director Don Schwartz said. “It’s going to be difficult and expensive.”

The plan, drawn up by the Department of Environmental Protection after a court case forced it to rewrite its rules, would establish new guidelines for anyone installing a septic system in the state’s so-called “high-quality” and “exceptional-value” watersheds.

Those watersheds, draining over miles into clear, pristine rivers and streams, dot the Altoona area: the mountains around Blue Knob State Park; nearly all of Morrisons Cove; the hinterlands of Bedford and Huntingdon counties; and the valleys around Canoe Creek Lake, among others.

Roughly a quarter of Pennsylvanians rely on septic systems, according to DEP statistics. In this area, many of those who use the systems also live within the high-value watersheds the state is charged to protect.

In the past, home and business owners applying to install a system – a few dozen per year in Blair County alone, according to county officials – had to prove that damaging nitrates, a waste byproduct, wouldn’t leach into protected streams and creeks.

But a 2011 court ruling declared that the DEP’s regulations weren’t enough; it had to rewrite the guidelines to better ensure rural homes and businesses weren’t unknowingly pumping wildlife-killing nitrates into the water.

That ruling led to the new proposal, which includes a “point” system for some landowners: To be approved for a septic system, you must meet a series of requirements, adding the points from each environmental benefit until you reach the magic number of 45.

To get points, you can own a large plot, plant forested buffers, situate your system far from a protected stream or install novel devices that remove nitrates.

For those in high-quality watersheds, a small riverside plot might be approved only with the help of cleaning systems that cost thousands of dollars.

“They can mix and match and pick what works best for them,” said Kevin Sunday, DEP deputy press secretary.

“Sewage is a contributor to [nitrate damage], and a major one,” he said.

Sunday stressed that the point system would apply only to new construction and only to those living around high-quality waterways. But for areas crisscrossed by clear creeks and streams, the regulations could seriously hamper development, opponents have said.

“If you’re in one of those townships, yes, it could have a devastating economic impact on you,” said James Wheeler, environmental affairs director for the State Association of Township Supervisors.

In far northeastern Pennsylvania, where some counties are almost wholly covered by high-quality watersheds, construction companies are “up in arms” at the prospect of new regulations, Wheeler said. Vacationers from New York prop up the economy there by building rural homes on small plots, he said.

“We’re a little more conscientious about this in our area. It’s taken awhile to filter out to other parts of the state,” Chris Wood, a Pike County sewage officer and adviser to the DEP’s Sewage Advisory Committee, said Thursday. “Things you’ve done for years – suddenly you can’t do it.”

Wood cited a popular restaurant on the northeast Pennsylvania’s Lake Wallenpaupack: Its beautiful waterfront view would be impossible under the proposed regulations, he said, because the owners would have to plant a 150-foot tree barrier between the restaurant and the shoreline.

“We could avoid the entire nitrogen issue if nobody ever puts up a house, opens a business or subdivides a lot,” he said sarcastically.

Opponents have mocked the suggestion that the guidelines would seriously reduce nitrate pollution, citing statistics that show agriculture contributes as much as 10 times more nitrogen to waterways than home septic tanks do.

“The on-lot systems are trivial,” Wheeler said Friday. “But it’s hard to take a farmer to court. It’s easy to take someone building a big, expensive home to court.”

Now, as the DEP conducts online sessions to explain the proposal and to accept critiques, planners in some areas are already considering alternatives.

While the proposed guidelines wouldn’t be law, they would be fully enforced unless landowners could prove their alternatives are just as effective.

Bedford County’s Schwartz said he wouldn’t be surprised if a lawsuit delays the policy soon after its June public-comment deadline passes.

Wood said he could foresee implementation as soon as September.

Most landowners wouldn’t notice the change – those with sewer lines or existing septic systems would be exempt, and those outside the high-quality waterways aren’t affected – but it will take just one scuttled business opportunity to raise legal opposition, Wood said.

Locally, Bedford and Huntingdon counties rank highly among possibly affected areas: Bedford has the sixth largest private land area covered by protected watersheds, and Huntingdon ranks 11th. Blair County ranks 40th in private, high-quality watershed land.

It seems almost no one involved is totally pleased with the idea: Even DEP officials, who drafted the new rules, did so only after a Berks County environmental group took it to court.

Sunday said he’s optimistic that business, government and municipal representatives can agree to a reasonable policy by the deadline. The state Legislature could intervene as well, he noted, by passing a law distinct from the DEP’s suggestions.

“There’s been a lot of criticism and concerns, and we’re open to those concerns,” Sunday said. “We’re open to other solutions.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.