Members of the Wayne County Planning Commission and the county planner have strong opinions when it comes to a new proposal about on-lot sewage systems in Pennsylvania.
— Members of the Wayne County Planning Commission and the county planner have strong opinions when it comes to a new proposal about on-lot sewage systems in Pennsylvania.
In fact, in a letter sent to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the planning commission is asking the state to "abandon" the proposal.
This comes on the heels of an outcry of residents and officials in northeast Pennsylvania who recently learned of the matter — and who are concerned it could kill future growth in this area.
At issue is the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) regulations which are now being considered. Those regulations focus on water quality and the impact to that water from septic systems in the state and are based on nitrates levels, something experts say is not a problem in this region.
Under the rules, there has to be a 150-foot buffer zone between the septic system and any stream. That even includes ditches which may only run after a rainstorm.
In some cases, the buffer zone has to be a forrest, which he could add great expense for property owners.
There is also another proposals relating to enhanced sewage system, which could add greatly the cost of any developments.
Edward J. Coar, director of planning of the Wayne County Planning Department, says the rules are not realistic.
"It's just not fair," said Coar about the proposal.
The proposals are especially hurtful for this part of the region.
The rules apply to land which lies in special protection watershed areas.
That's all of Pike County and around 90 percent of Wayne County.
Coar said in Wayne County, there are total of 425,474 acres of private land which fall in that category. Total land in the county is 480,425.
As a comparison, he said the second highest impacted county is Lycoming, which he called a "huge county."
There, about 306,000 acres of land would be impacted and there is a total land mass of 796,000 acres.
Coar said the new proposals "are not based on science. It's based on the label of a watershed."
There is even a debate about why DEP is calling this a "guidance" when, Coar says, it is in fact a policy that becomes a regulation.
"In effect, that's what these are," he said.
The new proposal was developed after DEP lost a lawsuit involving a subdivision.
Coar said DEP is "too anxious to settle" lawsuits "whenever they are challenged."
And he also thinks there is a movement afoot to quash development in this part of the state.
"There is a mind-set in Harrisburg that I have seen that there shouldn't be much development in the northeast," said Coar. "They won't admit it but it is very obvious."
He also thinks that regulations are part of the culture in Harrisburg.
In 1978, when Coar first began working in planning, there were two volumes of DEP regulations. Now, there are nine.
"It is regulatory overload," said Coar.
Coar said one of the biggest parts of the proposal involves a points system developed by DEP for people to comply with the regulations.
Under that system, Coar says that if someone wanted to develop a piece of land based on lot size alone, it would have to be at least 11.25 acres.
He called it "ironic" that DEP signed onto an agreement some years ago to work toward "anti-sprawl. If you look at 11.25 acres, that would be a big contributor to sprawl."
If someone would choose another alternative, that could be a proposed denitrification system. Coar said there is only one system approved for use in Pennsylvania and it would cost somewhere around $9,500. That, coupled with around $15,000 to install a septic system, and many people would be priced right out of any development. That's not even mentioning ongoing maintenance of the system.
Another alternative is a barrier which can be installed on property. However, it has to be dug two feet below the water table and then filled with certain materials.
"My understanding is we don't know if that really works," said Coar.
Another irony in all of this, he said, is that DEP has historically said that septic systems are the preferred method of disposal because there are fewer point discharges into water systems, such is the case with sewage plants.
"This just about shuts down any growth in Wayne County," said Coar. "And when you start shutting any growth, that is taking."
Coar said in DEP's own literature, they admit they "don't know if it is going to work. I find it amazing they would develop regulations that have statements like that."
Another huge factor, or fear, on the part of Coar and other officials, is the fact the economy seems to be turing around ever so slightly.
He said from 2005 through 2011, subdivision development applications were on a steady decline.
But, toward the end of last year, he said "that turned around."
But now these new regulations are looming over the area.
"That could kill it all," said Coar, who added it's not just subdivisions but any kind of development.
That could include gas stations, stores or anything commercial.
"Anything that generates sewage is going to be affected," said Coar.
Even with all of these issues, the matter, according to Coar, is being "fast tracked" in Harrisburg and now is the time to take action.
"The big thing is to get people to comment," said Coar.
The comment period is open through May 6.
Those comments can be made directly to DEP. The website is http://www.depweb.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/dep_home/5968.
Coar said he is working on comments and is also working with the commissioners in Wayne and Pike counties.
The commissioners have formally requested that DEP conduct hearings about the proposals in this region. Whether that will happen or not has not yet been determined.
Coar also thinks it is important for people to let their elected officials know how they feel about this issue.
"If the elected officials are going to go to bat for us, they need to know how strongly they feel about this," said Coar.
The Wayne County Planning Commission sent a three-page letter to the DEP outlining their many concerns.
One passage says, "It would appear to us that the commonwealth's obsession with new regulatory guidance would be better served in areas where there are continued water quality problems and a demonstrated need for more oversight."
They are also critical of the term "guidance," as used by DEP concerning the proposal.
"By slipping the disclaimer in this document, and calling this 'guidance,' is nothing more than a deliberate attempt on the part of DEP to avoid due process required for new regulations."
Here's how the planning commission closed out its letter:
"The new regulatory guidance unjustly targets northeast Pennsylvania and Wayne County in particular. They are not based on science, but rather on an environmental label assigned to a watershed where the water is of the highest quality and current regulations obviously are working. Therefore, we request the proposed new regulatory guidance be abandoned.
"Any regulations applied to sewage systems should not be fabricated on such hollow reasoning as being based on watershed classification or a narrowly constructed EHB decision."
That letter was sent to the DEP as well as the governor and the local elected statewide representatives from this area.