Unintended consequences of a good idea
By Kristy Acuff
During its work session on Tuesday, April 24, the Gunnison County commissioners heard an earful of comments regarding the county environmental health department’s proposed changes to septic system inspections.
The department proposes to require septic inspections for all homes prior to title transfer in an effort to find failing septic systems in the county that currently slip under the radar. The Colorado State Health Department requires all counties to update septic regulations by June of this year.
According to county environmental health department official Crystal Lambert, “There are many systems in unincorporated Gunnison County that are not functioning effectively or may not exist. County staff have observed old truck beds, barrels, rock walls, metal tanks, and similarly inappropriate items used as septic tanks… as well as the complete absence of systems, where a pipe conveys waste into a ground or water source that allows the waste to disappear.”
Lambert estimates the inspections would run between $250 and $1000 and stated there are currently 13 certified inspectors in the county who could perform the inspections. She estimates, on average, 80 property transfers annually would require inspections under the proposed regulations. And while all in attendance agreed on the imperative to find failing systems, the on-the-ground details of the proposed inspections raised a few questions.
“If a property owner calls me to perform an inspection and I look at the property and ask, ‘Where is your leach field? Where is your tank?’ and they don’t know the answer to that, how am I going to inspect it without requiring the property owner to excavate their yard?” asked Jerry Burgess, senior engineer of SGM engineering. “If we require them to excavate, that will raise the cost significantly, but how else can we perform an inspection? And who is liable if that system fails after I inspect it?”
“As an inspector, you would not be certifying the system. You are just inspecting it and saying ‘This system is working today and has the required components: a tank, a pipe, a leach field,” responded Lambert. “Certifying the system, on the other hand, means providing some assurances that the system would continue working in the future. But inspection just means the system is working as designed on this date. Inspectors have to undergo training and through that, they are taught how to find the components. It might not require excavation as you describe.”
Hal Hearne of Gunnison Excavating and Septic asked for clarification on the level of detail required in an inspection. “I can look into a tank but I only see about 10 percent of that tank. Are we going to require owners to pump out their systems prior to inspection?” he asked. “I have pumped out tanks that I thought were working, only to have the sludge leak back into the tank from the surrounding land, which told me that there were cracks in the deep part of the tank. We are not going to be able to see those leaks unless we pump it out.”
“I agree with that,” said Larry Parachini, county environmental health board member. “You really couldn’t do a thorough inspection without pumping the tank down.”
“But inspectors could use other tools to get a feel for whether it was a functioning system,” said Lambert. “Probing the surrounding land, looking at the age of the tank, for example. Remember, this is an effort to capture those failing systems or those systems that are completely missing components.”
Currently there are no county regulations for septic system inspections other than those that apply to homes in the Marble watershed and the Crested Butte watershed district (mainly located in Irwin townsite where homeowners are required to inspect septic systems annually and submit reports to the county).
According to Lambert, “County staff has observed brand new systems completely fail when a connection breaks during or after construction and the condition can go unnoticed until the septic tank is checked or the system is inspected. This proposed change would catch those failures before they disturb the county water supply.”
“But why put it on the title company? Why not include it as part of the real estate contract?” asked one audience member. “It seems like a ‘buyer beware’ situation, where it is up to the buyer to have the inspection completed. Why are we making it part of the title company’s process?”
“This is not meant to be an onerous process. A homeowner presents their inspection report to us and five or ten minutes later, we issue an acceptance letter, which allows the title transfer to occur,” said Lambert. At least 15 counties around the state, including Boulder, have already adopted the title transfer inspection requirement without many downsides, according to Lambert. “If we go forward with these changes, we will also have a strong public education and outreach component to help homeowners negotiate these changes.”
Lambert continued to emphasize that the inspections are meant to catch failing systems, and are not to require that all systems be brought to modern code. In addition, any system under four years old is exempt from the inspections, and if a system cannot be inspected due to weather, the county will issue a conditional permit and the seller will pre-pay for an inspection when weather permits. The buyer would then have 90 days after the inspection to implement any needed repairs. Real estate professionals wonder whether that delay would affect lending procedures.
“One of the snags could fall on the lending side. If inspections cannot occur due to winter weather, there are certain lending institutions I have spoken with that may not lend based on an inspection still looming out there,” wrote Brieonna Aljets, CEO of the Gunnison Country Association of Realtors.
The county has until June 30 to decide whether or not to implement the changes. The proposed regulations would not go into effect until spring 2019.