2018-02-22 / Front Page

Septic inspections: much ado, nothing

By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff

It’s déjà vu all over again.

For the second time in less than a year — and for at least the fifth time in about 20 years — a push to have the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners authorize creation of a septic inspection ordinance has gone down in flames.

During a series of County Board meetings late last year and earlier this year, public comment was heavily in favor of the board asking the Benzie- Leelanau District Health Department to enact a “point-of-sale” residential septic system inspection ordinance for Leelanau County. One is already in place in neighboring Benzie County.

The latest effort resulted in a well-attended, seven-hour long meeting late last month at which “expert witnesses” from throughout Michigan offered their insights. Most of them recommended the county tighten rules for privately owned septic systems.

At its regular monthly meeting Tuesday evening, after hearing from eight more members of the public in favor of a septic inspection ordinance, the County Board decided to….

Well, after much debate, the board couldn’t decide on anything. So, nothing happened.

Asked following the meeting whether he thought this was the end of the line for efforts to enact a septic inspection ordinance for Leelanau County, District No. 3, Commissioner and County Board Chairman Will Bunek responded, “I’m hoping it is.”

But, he added, “this whole thing could come up again next month for all we know.”

Indeed, the topic has come before the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners numerous times in recent decades, most recently in July 2017 when District No. 4 Commissioner Ty Wessell tried, unsuccessfully, to revive the effort.

The only consistent support Wessell has received from fellow board member on the issue has come from fellow Democrat, District No. 5 Commissioner Patricia Soutas-Little.

Depending on the exact wording of the motion before the board, District No. 1 Commissioner Tony Ansorge and District No. 6 Commissioner Casey Noonan, both Republicans, have expressed a willingness to consider letting the Health Department explore additional rules to regulate private septic systems.

At this week’s County Board meeting, however, a complex series of motions and amended motions ended the discussion. Motions were made to consider the issue further, ask the Health Department to consider an ordinance, ask county attorneys for more advice, and to put a referendum on the ballot. All resulted in no action by the board.

“This is making my brain hurt,” Noonan remarked at one point.

“I’m with you on that,” Soutas-Little added.

District No. 2 Commissioner Debra Rushton made it clear that she would not support a new septic inspection ordinance because of what she sees as an egregious imposition on “private property rights.” District No. 7 Commissioner Melinda Lautner expressed similar sentiments, and specifically objected to using the term “ordinance” in two of the amended motions made Tuesday night.

Throughout the past several months, dozens of people have offered public comment on the issue at County Board meetings. Most have expressed support for the County Board asking the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department Board, which Lautner chairs, to enact a septic inspection ordinance that would be applied to Leelanau County.

Lautner said Tuesday night that she hears frequently from people who are strongly opposed to such an ordinance.

But, she said, many of them are afraid to speak out publicly on the issue for fear that their own septic systems will be “targeted” by the Health Department.

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