Upswing in septic permits slows subdivision development

February 27, 2019

An increase in the volume of septic permit applications has prompted Flathead County to send a portion of its workload to the state Department of Environmental Quality, a process that has led to delays in local subdivision development.

The county is contracted by the state to review septic permits locally for compliance with the Sanitation and Subdivision Act, but the reviews must be done in a timely manner, according to county Public Health Officer Hillary Hansen. However, at the Flathead County Board of Health meeting last week, local engineers and consultants expressed concern over the state’s handling of subdivision proposals, which they say often leads to delays in the completion of reviews and thus, a delay in subdivision projects in the county. Many people attending the board meeting said while reviews at the county level take only a few months, those forwarded to the state in an effort to meet time requirements can take anywhere from six months to a year.

The problems were highlighted in a letter addressed to Health Board members from Jeff Larsen, vice president of the Montana Environmental Consultants Association. Larsen claimed, among other things, that state employees lack field experience and often handle questions and concerns via written letters, which can stall the review process significantly.

“The timely and reasonable review of these applications can make or break a project and therefore the review process is important to the applicant, consultant and general welfare of the Flathead County economy,” Larsen wrote.

Larsen and others proposed at the meeting that another sanitarian be hired at the City-County Environmental Health Department to help with septic reviews. They said an additional staff member would allow for more time to be allotted to continue subdivision reviews at the local level as opposed to passing them on to Helena.

Regardless of whether the department decides to accept a state submittal, local reviewers must go to the site and write a report. According to Hansen, 479 lots were visited last year.

Currently there four employees in the Environmental Health Department, including two qualified sanitarians who can review state submittals, one who handles septic reviews and one who is training for septic review and is expected to become full time in the next few months.

In the last few years, the increase in septic permit applications has consumed the time of those qualified to handle the reviews.

“I’ve spent 25 years doing consulting engineering here in Flathead County and about 24 of those years 100 percent of the local projects that I submitted locally have been done locally,” Larsen noted. “The local reviewer knows the county and they have visited the site.”

Brent Foley, president of Foley Engineering in Flathead County, said the department’s sanitarians have a demonstrated history of completing quality reviews. He said when reviews are conducted by people outside of the community, there can be a “geographical disconnect.”

Nathan Lucke, president of 406 Engineering, echoed the importance of having a boots-on-the-ground approach.

“I think it’s great to have the government closer to the people,” Lucke told the board.

According to county sanitarians, the spike in septic permit applications isn’t the only barrier to handling state submittals locally. There have also been changes to the review process over the years that have made subdivision reviews more time-consuming.

David Myerowtiz and other Health Board members were receptive to the concerns.

“We need to work toward getting timely reviews done locally,” Myerowtiz said. “I think clearly the change in the economy locally has changed the work requirement for this kind of work.”

While Hansen said hiring an additional person for septic review is a possibility, qualified sanitarians are rare and the department would most likely have to put the new hire through sanitarian training - a qualification that takes about one year to complete. The board is expected to consider immediate potential solutions between now and next month’s meeting.

Under the contract with the Department of Environmental Quality, Flathead County receives $35 per lot for site visits and 80 percent of the review fee. According to Hansen, the state is looking at an increase of fees of 40 percent across the board, but the increase still needs to be approved.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com.