Forum Educates and Responds to Property Owners about the Proposed Septic Tank Visual Inspection / Walkover Program

Sherman, Conn. (Citizen News) – Residents… If you missed the first public forum about the proposed septic tank visual inspection walkover program, then the second public forum is scheduled for tonight at 7 P.M.

On Saturday, January 17th, the first informational public forum to discuss the proposed ordinance and septic inspection / walkover program for Sherman took place at Charter Hall in the Emergency Services facility.

Moderating this assembly was First Selectman Clay Cope. He welcomed over 25 residents and property owners wanting to learn firsthand more details about the proposed ordinance and program along with why supporters want it to pass. This forum began with an educational presentation, and midway through, it became a “question and answer” session.

Health Director, Tim Simpkins, presented a slideshow about how septic systems work and how septic failures can negatively impact not just Candlewood Lake but also 14 other named waterbodies along with numerous unnamed tributaries, brooks, streams, and ponds in Sherman. He pointed out that septic failures can also taint drinking water, so everyone benefits from this proposal.

Mr. Simpkins discussed how the October 2013 outbreak of Cyanobacteria Blooms in Candlewood Lake in which Sherman, by area, is 51 percent within the Lake’s watershed, was a big wakeup call for the community. He showed statistics, graphics, and charts illustrating how septic runoff can be one key contributor to this water pollution problem.

Also cited were the many risks that Cyanobacteria exposure can have to one’s health and how property values may see up to a 29 percent decrease should Candlewood Lake become permanently plagued by these harmful algae blooms.

Regarding the cost to implement this preventive program, the nominal estimate is $1.50 per year per residence. This will pay for the three thousand dollars per year (nine thousand dollars every three years) addition of a part-time walkover inspector. This technician will help the Health Department to conduct five-minute visual inspections of all 2,180 residential and commercial properties throughout the course of a three-year cycle.

Mr. Simpkins stated “the New Fairfield Septic Management / Sewer Avoidance Ordinance was created over 25 years ago because of a state mandate due to high septic system failure rates of three to four percent.” He said that “today, the ordinance and program in New Fairfield is highly successful and the failure rates are at the acceptable standard rate of around one percent.” The proposed Sherman ordinance is a scaled down version of the New Fairfield ordinance that it’s modeled after.

As the Health Director for both Sherman and New Fairfield, Mr. Simpkins said that “for Sherman, the proposed ordinance is mainly for preventive measures to protect the Lake and the environment and it’s not a mandate.The failure rate in Sherman is unknown.”

Mr. Simpkins stressed that inspectors will only be looking for aboveground discharge of raw sewage and not anything else. He also indicated that the estimate does not include additional expenses like mileage, printing, and any legal fees.

After the presentation, First Selectman Cope and Mr. Simpkins invited attendees to share their voices. Three knowledgeable panelists were also available to answer questions and address concerns: Phyllis Schaer, Chairman of the Candlewood Lake Authority (CLA); Larry Marsicano, Executive Director of the CLA; and Scott Randall, resident, advocate, and Lake Advisory Committee Waterfront Delegate.

What some property owners had to say and how supporters answered…

The first resident to speak shared how she lives up Route 55 and is nowhere near the Lake. She wondered why there is a need for the Town to be on her property at all, especially since she is proactive and gets her septic system cleaned routinely every two years.

Ms. Schaer replied saying that the proposed program is not just about keeping Candlewood Lake clean and that “it’s far from just a noble intent but it is also a sanitary and health related issue.” Speaking from personal experience, she said “while renovating my house, I had a scan done of my septic system and found that I had a crushed pipe.” She then had the system replaced because the waste wasn’t going to her septic field.

The second example Ms. Schaer discussed was about how her “neighbor’s neighbor had a failing septic system that was leaching into his well so the bacteria count was getting too high.” She continued to say that “this proposal is trying to protect citizens by giving them cleaner water. In the case of the blue-green algae it poses a serious health risk.” She also made the point that septic cleaning only takes care of the tank and that “the cleaning is not addressing what is happening in the fields.”

As for inspectors walking on properties, four more residents voiced their concerns about this, too. Ron Blois was one of those concerned who said he doesn’t like people walking on his property and he wants “notification and the time of the walkover to be announced.” Mr. Simpkins responded by saying that property owner notification and scheduling, beforehand, is just too cumbersome and that it was tried before in New Fairfield and it just didn’t work out well.

Resident Joanna Wozniak-Brown thinks the cost is fair enough but the program “doesn’t seem logical after a problem has already happened.” Like Ms. Wozniak-Brown, resident Dave Adams thinks the program won’t help much if a septic failure problem is found after the fact. Mr. Simpkins replied “the walkovers don’t find everything that’s wrong but it’s the next best thing, which is to walk the properties, find the failures, and require people to fix them.”

Resident Jim Christie recommended a change in the language of the Ordinance in Section 1 Program to say, “…have its septic disposal system inspected by a walkover…” instead of saying “…have its septic system disposal system physically inspected…” The rationale: This change will make it clear that only an above-the-ground walkover will happen and there will be no opening up of a system. First Selectman Cope said “this is exactly the kind of feedback we are looking for.”

A few participants also brought up how septic system failures are not the only reasons why there is water pollution. Resident Ron Blois thinks that Canada Geese are more of an issue and Mr. Adams thinks fertilizers are the bigger issue. Mr. Randall replied by saying, “this [proposal] is not a silver bullet but is one important step the Town of Sherman can do to help protect the watershed. It is one part of the solution, and not the only solution.”

After this 45-minute forum adjourned, both Mr. Randall and First Selectman Cope agreed that the main concern approximately 20 percent of the forum property owners have about the plan, so far, is not including in the proposed program notification to residents about upcoming inspections by the Town. To address this concern, Mr. Randall thinks a weekly inspection schedule that lists street names can easily go on the Town’s website, and in social media outlets and local newspapers. First Selectman Cope said that it’s inexpensive to also mail a calendar to residents notifying them of when inspections will happen in their neighborhoods.

In a follow-up meeting with the Citizen News, First Selectman Cope said reassuringly that “the Town will not charge a fine fee for any problems found” and that the “burden of proof, and the cost, is on the property owner.” Regarding the possibility of property owners being able to opt out of these walkover inspections, he stated “it’s across the board that all property owners are subject to the walkover. It’s the nature of an ordinance.”

First Selectman Cope also provided an update about an independent study on water quality. “Dr. Mark June-Wells is the Limnologist hired to study these conditions of the Lake, which was funded by all five lake towns.”

The second public forum will take place on Friday, February 6th at 7 p.m. in Charter Hall.

The Presentation:

The Proposed Ordinance:

This article by Alicia Sakal covered the first forum and appeared in the January 21st Edition of the Citizen News, serving Sherman and New Fairfield, Connecticut.

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