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December, 2002

Septic Fear and Loathing:
Complicated Septic Laws Fuel Property Owner's Fears
By Elena Belsky

How much will this cost me? Will I be able to stay in my home? What rights of appeal do I have? Why is this necessary? The fear is hitting homeÉliterally.

These are a few of the myriad questions that are being asked throughout the County, and especially in rural West Marin, in response to the County's Draft Septic Policy Revisions. The document states that the Policy Revisions will eventually be folded into the Septic Regulations of Marin County Code, thus becoming law instead of just an interpretation of the laws.

Unfortunately, the Policy Revisions are difficult to understand unless you are a septic engineer. The average homeowner is hopelessly confused by the bureaucratic formulas, lack of supporting documentation, missing definitions and references, and no discussion of fiscal or practical impacts to the citizens and government whatsoever.

New Policies include a section on re-interpretation of the Repair, Remodel, and Replacement Regulations, revisions of which appear to be an improvement for property owners, but still quite incomprehensible. This section of the proposed Policy changes was obviously the most researched and thought out-regrettably, the rest of the Policies offered did not receive such attention.

The other sections that were included were very light on information and socio-economic impacts; Policy for Operations and Maintenance of Septic Systems, Incentives for Improvement and Repair of Onsite Wastewater Systems, and an Amnesty Program.

These sections are very reminiscent and stereotypical of the offerings made by Supervisor Kinsey and his tumultuous Septic Technical Advisory Commission (SepTac) and Environmental Health Services past collaborations; not fully thought out, lacking in scientific data, and without financial analysis or legal opinions on the ramifications of their proposals.

Socio-economics and Tax Base Problems

Only speculations are offered in the Draft Septic Policy Revisions to illuminate how any of the Policies or Plans will be financed. Grants, low cost loans, and reduced fees are all briefly listed as possible incentives, yet no other research or practical information was provided.

Mention is made as to possible formation of numerous, small Community Service Districts (CSDs) to pay for and administrate the programs. Yet the tax base for CSDs to function properly must be of a certain size and in relatively close geographic proximity to be sustainable. One undesirable affect of the formation of CSDs in an underdeveloped area, is growth. How better to augment an undersized CSD than to build more homes and expand the tax base?

While Marin is seen as having plenty of disposable income, long-time residents, seniors, young families are very prevalent in the County. Many are either low-moderate or low income, or on fixed incomes; whether they are homeowners or renters, monthly bills are tight. How are property owners to cope with increased costs from taxes for the various Septic Programs? If they must initiate costly septic repairs ranging from $10,000 to perhaps $50,000-what then? How are the elderly, retired, or disabled people on fixed incomes going to afford the extra payments when they are forced to re-mortgage their homes? Landlords will undoubtedly have to raise rents due to increased ownership and repair costs - affordable housing options could get much worse, very quickly.

The county must find a way to reasonably assure the public that these Policy Revisions and Programs, which the county has stated will eventually become law, will not evict them from their homes due to extreme financial pressure.

Fair and Equitable Treatment.

It is not reassuring to consider the numerous and well-documented past instances of the County and EHS failing to provide fair and equal treatment under their codes and regulations. The Civil Grand Juries of 2000, 2001, and 2002 found serious fault with the administration of the EHS and ultimately the County Supervisors. Supervisor Kinsey's infamous alleged gutting of long-time, experienced EHS staff continues to have lasting impacts on the credibility and stability of the department.

In light of this history of unreliability and mistrust, who will guarantee to the public that the policies will be governed in an even handed fashion ?

Moreover, where are the provisions to accommodate disagreements with EHS evaluation of a given situation- what process is available to property owners wishing to appeal a decision? None are outlined in the Policy Revisions. The appearance to the public, of a governmental entity taking over their lives and homes without oversight or appeal, is a very disquieting concept.

Summary

The County must fully evaluate and disclose the financial and legal ramifications of their proposed Septic Regulation Policy Revisions before the public can form reasonable opinions. Building in transition periods for property owners, strong financial assistance programs, and provisions assuring even handed application of the regulations, are all critical elements for allaying the public's justifiable emotions of distrust and fear.

Perhaps the County Administrators should test out the new policies first, to see how it works for them, before enforcing upon the citizens (Supervisor Kinsey, CDA director Hinds and Chief Administrator Reisenfeld all live in west Marin, on septics).

This has suddenly become very real to people; it is frightening for any homeowner to be faced with a huge outlay of money, it is even worse if they are on a fixed or low income. Several hundred dollars more per month is simply not affordable for certain homeowners, if forced to refinance. People have to be confidant that they can comply with the law, if required to do so, otherwise the County will create more of a closed, outlaw, and fearful society than it already has propagated.

 

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