Septic inspections now required
Glen Arbor has become the first township in the county to require septic inspections for properties changing ownership.
And some hope they won’t be the last.
The board voted 5-0 Tuesday to adopt a “Point of Sale” (POS) ordinance that will require all systems installed more than five years ago to be inspected by the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department when properties change hands.
“We want new owners to know what they are getting into,” township superintendent John Soderholm said. “And we want to take care of the watershed.”
So does the Glen Lake Association (GLA), which earlier this year encouraged Glen Arbor along with Kasson and Empire Townships to take action.
“Yay,” said GLA biologist Rob Karner, upon learning of the board’s adoption of the ordinance. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to catch some systems that are outdated and keep the water clean.”
The ordinance requires both septic and water systems be inspected upon change of ownership. The only exclusion would occur for property transfers among spouses.
Inspections, triggered by a change in title, will be performed by Health Department sanitarians with costs paid by property owners, according to the ordinance.
The concern is that outdated, failing septic systems within the Glen Lake watershed will contaminate groundwater, drinking water and the quality of Glen Lake itself.
“Rain leaches into the surface water and pathogens over and above what is normal,” Karner said. “If failing, septic systems also run the risk of contaminating drinking water which is not good for public health.”
Interestingly, Michigan is the only state in the country without a statewide code governing how septic systems are designed, installed and maintained. County health departments regulate where septic tanks can be installed.
But just 11 percent of Michigan’s 83 counties have programs that identify failed septic systems and force repairs.
A local code was first enacted in 1972 by the former Tri-County Health Department that included, Leelanau, Benzie and Grand Traverse counties. It requires the bottom of a disposal field, drywell, or absorption system to be a minimum of four feet above the water table and 50 feet from surface water and drinking water wells. However, systems that pre-date the law may not come into compliance.
There are 1.3 million on-site wastewater treatment systems in Michigan, most of which are septic systems for single-family homes. Of those, state officials estimate 10 percent of these systems or 130,000 have failed and are polluting the environment.
The Village of Empire enacted a POS ordinance last year.
While an exact figure is not available, several counties that have POS inspections in place have reported a septic system failure rate of 20 to 25 percent, according to a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality report.
Officials in Benzie County established a POS ordinance 24 years ago that requires a health department inspection of septic systems when occupied properties are sold.
A similar proposal has twice been placed before Leelanau County commissioners — and rejected.
The Benzie ordinance requires that failing systems be brought into compliance. No such provisions are included in the Glen Arbor ordinance, although compliance is encouraged.
“Sales usually involve a bank ... why not take something cost prohibitive (such as replacing a system) and spread it across a 15 or 30-year mortgage?” Karner asked.
Townships whose jurisdictions include Glen Lake shoreline were encouraged to enact POS ordinances by the Glen Lake Association. Although proposals have been provided to governing boards in Kasson and Empire townships, only Glen Arbor has taken action.
Karner considers Empire Township the other “big player” in the quality of water within the watershed. Empire Township has less Glen Lake frontage.
Karner plans to continue to pursue the issue with township officials.
“There is nothing here that states if we do it, they have to,” Soderholm said. “We’re doing it because we think it’s important and we hope they will too.”
The ordinance is effective upon publication.