BOISE – An Idaho lawmaker upset that regulators refuse to bend the rules for a Worley-area cabin owner with an inadequate septic system is proposing legislation that threatens to undermine the Panhandle Health District’s ability to keep sewage out of North Idaho lakes and streams.
“I’m just getting their attention up there,” said state Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow. He added that even if SCR 114 were to be approved, the health district could re-establish its own regulatory authority by writing “another rule tomorrow.”
The health district disagrees.
“Neither the board nor I feel that that’s in the best interest of the public in general,” said Dale Peck, environmental response and technology director for the district.
The legislation would affect all homes on substandard sewer systems in the five counties of the 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’s legislation would remove the expansion limits.
Schroeder said he introduced the measure on behalf of a Pullman resident who built a big cabin – 2,749 square feet – on Lake Coeur d’Alene, but now can’t get an occupancy permit to use it.
That’s because when the owner, Carol Chipman, built the home near Worley, a condition on her building permit required her to tear down a 1,248-square-foot cabin and a second 893-square-foot cabin on an adjacent lot. The newer home exceeds the 10 percent limit, but Panhandle Health decided to allow the swap. Both 1950s-era cabins were on substandard septic systems, as is the new home.
However, Chipman now is refusing to tear down the second cabin.
Schroeder said Chipman’s project came at the same time the 10 percent rule was taking effect, and she was simply caught in the changeover. She’d already torn down the larger of the two old cabins before she and her contractor realized the rules had changed.
“I think that they should have the flexibility to solve a problem for people that are caught in a time warp when there’s a rule change like this,” Schroeder said.
Before 2007, the health district prevented replacement homes on substandard sewer systems from having more bedrooms than the structures they replaced. Schroeder said Chipman’s new house meets that old standard.
Schroeder, Chipman, and Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, met with Panhandle Health officials in September to discuss the case, and all sides came away thinking the problem had been resolved. Peck said Chipman’s options include developing a compliant drain field to serve both structures so she wouldn’t need to tear down the old cabin. On Oct. 13, she submitted a permit to do just that, “so that is in process,” Peck said. However, she’s not yet identified a site for a new drain field.
Meanwhile, Chipman’s building permit has been extended to June to allow for that, Peck said.
“I felt she had options,” Broadsword said.
Schroeder said if the health district would just give Chipman an occupancy permit, he’d withdraw his legislation. “I think government is being inflexible,” he said. “I think a citizen got caught in the middle of a rule change.”
The health district disagrees; Peck said its board will discuss Schroeder’s bill at its meeting Thursday.
Broadsword said she thinks the district could be more flexible. “I’m not saying the rule is bad – I just think there needs to be a little more flexibility,” she said.
Schroeder likened it to a situation in his district when Fish and Game changed the border of a hunting unit, and hunters who didn’t realize the change had happened took game on the wrong side of the line. The agency opted to just give warnings the first year, he said.
“I want them to solve this,” Schroeder said. “The rules have changed. … That’s my only issue.”