Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
County commissioners back ban on new conventional septic systems beachside, near lagoon
Brevard County commissioners unanimously backed a major overhaul of the county’s septic tank rules in an effort to reduce harmful nitrogen and phosphorus from going into the Indian River Lagoon.
The vote is seen by many environmentalists as a significant step in efforts to improve conditions of the lagoon, and another sign that county commissioners are serious in addressing the problem.
In the first of two required votes, commissioners on Tuesday night approved an ordinance to ban installation of new conventional septic tanks throughout Brevard County’s beachside barrier island areas and on Merritt Island, as well as within mainland areas that are near the lagoon.
Under the plan, installation of new “nitrogen-reducing septic systems” that cut nitrogen emissions by at least 65 percent would be allowed in these areas. These tanks cost thousands of dollars more than conventional systems, but better protect the environment.
If commissioners approve the ordinance when it comes up for a final vote on Oct. 9, it will replace a 150-day moratorium with similar restrictions that was approved on May 22 and would expire on Oct. 19.
County Commissioner Jim Barfield said the ordinance proposal, presented Tuesday by Brevard County Natural Resources Management Department Director Virginia Barker, “sets a standard for where we’re going.”
Under the plan, in addition to all of Brevard’s barrier island and Merritt Island, the mainland areas affected would be locations within 200 feet of the Indian River Lagoon shoreline. An exception would be in the Melbourne Tillman Water Control District area of South Brevard, where the buffer would be within 130 feet of the lagoon shoreline.
The new rules would affect only the installations of new septic systems. Residents in the affected areas who already have conventional septic tanks would not be required to upgrade them.
During public comment before the County Commission vote, eight local residents spoke in favor of the ordinance, although some of them felt it didn’t go far enough.
Merritt Island resident Alex Gorichky was among those who favored a countywide ban on new conventional septic systems, rather than having different parts of the county under different rules.
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t make this countywide,” said Gorichky, a fishing charter captain who owns Local Lines Guide Service. “It’s time to get serious about it. We’re still putting Band-Aids” on trying to clean up the lagoon.
County commissioners agreed to revisit the provisions of the ordinance no later than August 2020, when Barker will have additional research completed on the impacts of septic tanks on the lagoon.
Barker said septic systems are responsible for about 18.8 percent of the total nitrogen in the Indian River Lagoon, making it the second-largest source, behind muck, at 42.4 percent. Septic systems are responsible for about 32.7 percent of the new nitrogen entering the lagoon, ranking first in that category.
Under current plans for use of a half-percent special sales tax for Indian River Lagoon restoration projects, the county would spend $68 million during a 10-year period to remove or retrofit 3,734septic systems, Barker said.
Yet, at the same time, the Florida Department of Health permits about 800 new septic systems a year, Barker said.
“So we’re currently losing ground,” Barker told county commissioners.
County Commissioner John Tobia encouraged Barker to consider increasing the amount of money allocated from the sales tax for projects that would reduce the number of septic systems in the county.
Barker said there currently are 59,438 septic systems in Brevard, including 15,090 that are less than 165 feet from surface water.
Barker said it would cost $1.19 billion to retrofit all existing conventional septic tanks to the upgraded nutrient-reducing systems. Alternatively, it would cost $2.3 billion to $3 billion to hook up all residences on septic systems to sewer lines.
“Obviously, we don’t have the funds available to address all of this problem,” Barker said. “We have to prioritize.”
Commissioners all expressed support for the ordinance.
“I think this is a great first step,” Commissioner Curt Smith said.
County Commission Vice Chair Kristine Isnardi said she was “in support of this 110 percent.”
The county is implementing a wide-ranging plan to clean up the Indian River Lagoon, in part to reduce the chance for intense algae blooms that have plagued the county since 2011.
The new rules would affect both unincorporated areas of the county and municipalities. Brevard’s cities and towns, however, would have the option of enacting an ordinance to opt out the county’s rules.
Properties in areas where septic-to-sewer conversion projects funded by the lagoon sales tax are planned would be exempt from the rules. Also exempt are repairs to existing conventional septic systems.
Two county advisory boards previously considered the proposed septic tank rules.
The Brevard County Local Planning Agency approved the proposal on Sept. 17 by a 7-1 vote. But the Brevard County Building Construction Advisory Committee on Sept. 12 was split on the plan, with a 2-2 vote.
Both advisory boards also considered a proposal to broaden the rules to make them countywide and to remove an exemption for septic repairs. But those changes failed to get the support of a majority of those panels.
Barker said the county also sought feedback on the proposal from the Home Builders & Contractors Association of Brevard, municipal building officials, the septic tank industry and environmental groups.
Low-income subsidies debated
Separately, county commissioners on Tuesday debated — then voted 5-0 to table — a proposal to move forward with a plan to offer low-income residents grants to help them pay for the higher-cost, but more efficient, septic systems, so they can comply with the ordinance. The grants would be funded by the half-percent lagoon sales tax.
Tobia suggested that the county consider making all residents — not just low-income residents — eligible for these grants, since a precedent had been established for an unrelated program in Satellite Beach using the sales tax money.
Commissioners will resume this discussion next month, after getting additional details on the financial impact of such a plan from county staff.
Barker said the more efficient septic systems now cost, on average, about $4,000 more than conventional systems. But she expects the cost gap to narrow, as more people opt for the environmentally friendly systems.
Dave Berman is government editor at FLORIDA TODAY.
Contact Berman at 321-242-3649