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County turns up heat on homeowners to inspect septic systems

King County officials have sent letters to some 200 Islanders within the county-designated marine recovery areas noting that they have until July 1 to get their septic systems inspected. Failure to comply, the letter adds, will be considered a violation of county health codes.

The letter is the county’s first one to impose a deadline and mention fines. It was issued, county officials note, because of their mounting frustration with homeowners, many of whom have been slow to comply with the state law, crafted as part of the Gregoire administration’s ongoing effort to clean up an ailing Puget Sound.

“I’m mildly discouraged,” said Larry Fay, the Community Environmental Health Section Manager for Public Health - Seattle & King County.

The county first established the marine recovery areas on Vashon — one along outer Quartermaster Harbor and another along the eastern shores of Vashon and Maury — four years ago. Since then, county officials have sent letters, held workshops and gone door to door urging those in the recovery zones to get their septic systems inspected, the first step towards determining if a new system is needed.

In recent months, Fay said, he’s encountered much more receptivity on the part of Islanders who own homes or cabins within the county-designated sites.

“The overall tone of the conversations ... is much different from when we started,” he said. “But it hasn’t translated into a groundswell of action.”

Those close to the situation on Vashon, however, say some homeowners have not responded because of their worries about what they might face if they do so.

“If they’ve got a 200-gallon tank and a pipe out to the beach, they don’t want to tell the county,” said Wayne Olson, owner of the Vashon-based Hydrologic Designs.

Olson is working with several property owners within Vashon’s marine recovery areas. The complexity of the topography adds to the situation, he said.

Many of the homeowners along outer Quartermaster Harbor, for instance, have aging cabins on tiny parcels of land, with the bay in front of them and a steep slope behind them. Finding a spot for a drainfield, required under county codes, is often difficult, he said.

At Magnolia Beach, for instance, “We’ve been working for months trying to figure out how we’ll fit something in there that the county will approve,” he said. “And we’re having a real hard time.”

Others say the cost and hassle of working with the county are impediments. Randy Heiberg, who bought a cabin last year knowing that the septic system was inadequate, has been trying for months to get county approval for a new system. Each step in the process, he said, can take three to four months and cost hundreds of dollars.

“Here we’re wanting to spend the $30,000 (needed to install a new septic system), and we can’t get there from here,” he said. “They (the county) can’t get out of their own way.”

But Fay said the county is working hard to meet Islanders’ needs, providing a flexibility that didn’t exist in county code before and on-site support from county staff that is also new.

Indeed, he said, if a homeowner really had no choice but to use a holding tank, the county would help the owner figure out a way — the use of composting toilets and other new technology, for instance — to make such a system work.

“Certainly a holding tank is the method of last resort, but it’s in the mix,” he said.

The county is well aware that the costs of a new system could be a hardship for many homeowners, Fay added, and he continues to search for a source of low-interest loans or other funds to help Islanders afford the costs of a new septic system — an approach other Puget Sound-based counties have been able to take.

But until homeowners get their systems inspected and submit a report to the county, Fay and his colleagues don’t have the information they need to write a compelling grant request.

“If we’re going to be successful in chasing money, we need to demonstrate need,” Fay said. “We will continue to pursue every opportunity,” he added. “But our applications would be stronger if we had that information. We’re not getting the basic data.”

Of the 250 or so property owners within the two marine recovery areas, about 10 to 15 percent have gotten inspections done, and few have taken the next steps towards installing new systems, Fay said.

“We’re getting pressure from the state. They’re not happy with the progress,” Fay said.

The Legislature passed the law calling for the establishment of marine recovery areas in 2006. The legislation, noting that both Hood Canal and Puget Sound “are at risk of severe loss of marine life” because of failing or non-existent septic systems, said those counties bordering Puget Sound had until July 2012 to show they’re making meaningful progress in getting homeowners to address failing or inadequate septic systems.

“That’s the key — actively taking steps,” said Lynn Schneider, a wastewater management specialist for the state Health Department.

“Having a healthy Puget Sound by 2020 is a priority the governor and the Legislature have established and that’s supported by public opinion polls,” Schneider added. “That’s the driving factor.”

She said she understands why Fay has taken a light touch with Vashon property owners. “I think he recognizes that the conflict between the Island and King County goes deeper there than in other areas,” she said.

But, she added, “Writing nice letters doesn’t do it. You need to hold people accountable.”

Some who live within the marine recovery area, meanwhile, say they fully intend to comply with the county’s request.

“I don’t want to be contributing to the problem,” said Gina Marie Moy, who has lived in her waterfront home for 22 years.

She and her husband haven’t yet inspected their system, however, “because we just haven’t had a chance to yet.”

“The deadline seemed far away,” she added. “Now, it doesn’t seem so far away.”

Homeowner education

The county is holding four workshops called “Septic Sense, Scents and Cents in the Marine Recovery Area.”

• 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, March 26, at Chautauqua Elementary School

• 7 to 9 p.m. at Public Health Seattle-King County’s Black River office, 900 Oakesdale Ave. S.W. in Renton

• 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 6, at 900 Oakesdale Ave. S.W. in Renton

• 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, April 9, at Chautauqua.

Contact Doug Jones at 296-9744 or at doug.jones@kingcounty.gov for more information.

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