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Sonoma County to seek half-year extension on controversial septic system changes

Sonoma County officials will ask state regulators for more time to craft new rules governing the estimated 45,000-plus septic systems in the county’s unincorporated areas after facing resistance from rural residents who feared the changes could force them to undertake costly and unnecessary upgrades.

The Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday to seek a six-month extension so county leaders can gather more community input and address concerns raised by homeowners, many of them from along the Russian River and on Fitch Mountain outside Healdsburg.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins embraced the idea of an extension, expressing sympathy toward some of the criticisms raised by residents in her west county district. Hopkins advocated for more flexibility in the standards, which as proposed could require more expensive evaluations of replacement septic projects, among other changes intended to prevent wastewater systems from contaminating local watersheds.

Septic replacements can cost as much as about $80,000, though they are often much less than that, according to county officials.

“If it’s adequately functioning and there is evidence it is adequately functioning, I’m not sure why we have to replace it with the latest and greatest $80,000 technology,” Hopkins said. “I don’t need a smartphone to make a phone call. A Buick will get you from Point A to Point B as well as a Cadillac.”

County staff members will move quickly to prepare a draft extension request and then grant further consideration to some of the “very well-defined issues” raised by supervisors and members of the public, including flexibility in the standards and cost, said Tennis Wick, the director of the county’s permit and planning department.

It’s not clear when the State Water Resources Control Board might make a decision about the county’s extension request once it’s filed, but Wick said in an interview he has “really good confidence” the board will grant its blessing.

“We have one of the best programs in the state. We’re only seeking to improve it,” he said. “I would hope that we’ll be granted the time to complete that process.”

California lawmakers passed legislation 18 years ago directing the state water board to adopt statewide permitting and operation standards for septic systems, which didn’t happen until 2012. Sonoma County supervisors then in 2016 agreed to move forward with creating a more customized set of local standards, given the region’s diverse geography and soil types.

Of particular concern to residents in the proposed new wastewater rules are heightened standards for what the county previously deemed a “voluntary repair,” which usually meant the replacement of an entire leach line, staff members said. Guided by the state’s policy changes, county staff recommended treating those as replacement septic systems, and also decided residents would need to have those projects reviewed by a professional engineer or registered environmental health specialist instead of a licensed contractor, as currently allowed.

Another issue has been the county’s longtime practice of requiring septic system upgrades after certain levels of home expansions. Some homeowners voiced concerns the new requirements could prove unworkable on smaller or more geographically complicated lots, though county staff members say they will only require upgrades on building permit requests that exceed the county’s thresholds - or if officials verify a complaint about a failed septic system.

Supervisors could also decide to change the building permit approach in the future and opt to regulate septic systems in a different fashion.

Overall, critics have worried the requirements could prove so onerous they may lead residents to move forward without permits or be forced to pay unreasonable sums to follow the rules.

“These new regs will put us in a bind: Being semiretired and having lived in this county for over 35 years, I can’t come up with the amounts of money you’re talking about,” said Linda Selover, a Fitch Mountain resident, at Tuesday’s board meeting. “My home is my retirement. It would push me into losing everything.”

Hopkins and Supervisor David Rabbitt will work more closely in the coming months with county staff members, and possibly the state’s regional water boards that have jurisdiction in Sonoma County, on the new septic rules.

“This is the exact opposite of kicking the can down the road: This is not wanting to kick the can into a cesspool,” said Supervisor James Gore, the board chairman. “We want to do this, we just want to make sure ... it doesn’t cause noncompliance.”

The Supervisors’ next regular board meeting June 5 is planned to include a discussion of potential sewer service expansion in Larkfield, which could inform the broader policy debate about the county’s septic system rules, Gore said.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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