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Panhandle Health to rethink sewer rule

BOISE - The Panhandle Health District has decided to start work on revisions to its rule limiting expansion of North Idaho cabins on old, non-compliant sewer systems, but the move won’t help a Pullman resident who built a big new home on Lake Coeur d’Alene and now can’t occupy it.

Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, who introduced legislation to eliminate the expansion limit - a move the health district said would undermine its authority to keep sewage out of North Idaho lakes and waterways - pulled his bill off a Senate committee agenda this week in favor of negotiations. “I’ll wait and see, see if they resolve it,” Schroeder said. “Obviously we expect them to protect the health and waterways, but there should be some flexibility to work through it.”

The Panhandle Health District’s board met late last week and decided to stick with its rule for now, which limits such expansions to 10 percent. But it also decided to launch a year-long, negotiated rule-making process to add some flexibility to the rule for owners of very small cabins who essentially were prohibited from expanding at all.

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, applauded the move, and said it addresses a concern she’s heard from her constituents in North Idaho about the limit. Broadsword said one owner of a 600-square-foot cabin wanted to expand, but would be allowed only a 6-by-10-foot expansion. “That wasn’t really big enough for a bed,” she said.

“The board agreed that they felt there was work to do on the rule,” Broadsword said.

The Sagle senator said she was glad Schroeder pulled his bill, and she hopes it won’t come up again. “I felt it would’ve had the potential, if passed, to cause some harm,” she said. “I think it was a political tactic to get the department to discuss the issues. I’ve found the department very responsive.”

Jeanne Bock, Panhandle Health District director, said, “We’re doing our best to apply the rule consistently, however look at each case individually. I think Sen. Schroeder commented … that he wanted to get our attention - well, we’ve always been attentive to this issue. So if that’s the reason he’s done it, the purpose is already met.”

Bock said 90 to 100 permits per year are affected by the rule limiting expansions, which applies to all homes on substandard sewer systems in the five counties of the North Idaho Panhandle. Currently, those homes have “vested rights” to continue using their old septic systems as long as they don’t expand their buildings by more than 10 percent.

Schroeder introduced his bill - which would eliminate all expansion limits - on behalf of Carol Chipman, who built a 2,749-square-foot cabin on Lake Coeur d’Alene near Worley to replace a 1950s-era 1,248-square-foot cabin. Chipman got a building permit in 2007, the same year the 10 percent rule took effect, on the condition that she tear down both the old cabin and another, 800-square-foot cabin on an adjacent lot in exchange for building the larger structure, but she’s now refusing to tear down the adjacent cabin.

Schroeder said he thought Chipman got caught in the transition when the rule went into effect.

Chipman got a permit in October to explore developing a new, compliant drain field to serve both structures, but Dale Peck, environmental response and technology director for Panhandle Health, said she was unable to secure suitable property for that, so that option’s now off the table.

Bock said the district’s board members “feel Mrs. Chipman still has options and they’re in discussions, so that’s not quite resolved but they’re looking at ways.”

As for the new rule, one possibility is to make the expansion limit either 10 percent or 250 square feet, whichever is greater; or to base limits directly on sewer capacity. “I don’t have a number yet - there’s nothing concrete,” Bock said. “We really do want to go through the public process of getting input.”

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