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The pipeline to controlled growth

July 10, 2005|by JOE LANE

Washington County is blessed with some of the finest agricultural land in the nation. Development threatens to destroy the agricultural way of life in the county. Development approved today has the potential to cause a huge financial burden for future taxpayers. The limestone geology that gave birth to this soil is also completely inappropriate for developments using septic systems. In this article, I will explain my reasoning and propose a workable solution.

We must require all new subdivisions to connect to public sewer and require developers to pay the full cost. When we do this we will solve a multitude of problems.

Problem No. 1: New development causes taxes to increase. If we require developers to pay for their own infrastructure, new development will not cause taxes to increase.

Problem No. 2. New development will sprawl all over the county. Requiring connection to sewer slows and directs sprawl. A developer cannot afford to extend a sewer to the far reaches of the county. The most cost-effective place to build will be next to existing sewer lines. Consequently, development will follow the existing sewers as developers pay for their extension.

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Problem No. 3: There is no affordable housing. Unfortunately, the housing market (rather than the cost of construction) drives the cost of new housing. But requiring developers to connect to the sewer lines will create an incentive to build a greater number of smaller units per acre.

Problem No. 4: New development will destroy all the good farm land. Requiring new development to use public sewer will actually help save prime agricultural land. It does this in two ways. First, sewer lines can be directed away from agricultural zones. The second way would be through a Transferrable Development Rights program. A farm could sell its TDR to a developer who wants to maximize density on the some property at the edge of the existing sewer.

The developer pays quite a bit to get sewer extended to his property and needs the extra density to distribute costs and maximize profit. Thus, the market creates an incentive to compensate farmland owners.

Problem No. 5: In 10 years, taxpayers get stuck paying for problems resulting from development approved today. We can't anticipate every problem, but it is the duty of elected officials to avoid foreseeable problems. Because Washington County has limestone geology, we cannot allow subdivisions at proposed comprehensive plan densities (one house per five acres in agricultural designations) to use septic systems. To allow this would be to virtually guarantee that tens of millions of future taxpayer dollars will be spent in the future to address well contamination. This is a completely predictable and avoidable outcome.

Citizens have been pointing out the contaminated well issue for quite a while. Recently, Commissioner Bill Wivell, in an attempt to get to the bottom of the issue, asked the Washington County Health Department what was an acceptable density for septic systems in Washington County. Wivell was told that one septic system per acre was acceptable "as long as they were maintained."

In fact, if septic systems were perfectly maintained, you could put a dozen of them on an acre and not risk contamination. The question that needs to be answered is "How many acres can one failed septic system contaminate?"

This tale of two counties will illustrate the problem. Suppose there were two Washington Counties. Sandstone Washco has a sandstone or granite geology and Limestone Washco has limestone karst geology. In every other way, the counties are identical.

Now suppose we build one house per acre on 100 acres of each Washco. Every house has a well and septic. The wells in Sandstone Washco are drilled into the sandstone while the Limestone Washco wells are drilled into limestone. Limestone is very erodable and consequently is like a giant piece of swiss cheese with caves in it. Surface and subsurface water flows through all the cracks and throughout the limestone. For this reason, limestone geology is susceptible to contamination flowing downward into wells.

Sandstone geology is not very erodable and water coming from the surface cannot flow down through the rock. Consequently, wells drilled into sandstone are far, far less susceptible to contamination from above.

Let's return to our 100 house subdivisions. Suppose one septic system fails. In Sandstone Washco, there is no chance of contamination because the wells are sealed under an impervious layer of sandstone. In Limestone Washco, there is a chance that none or all 100 wells will be contaminated as sewage from the failed system flows down through the Swiss cheese rock.

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