Tisbury inspects septic systems
Many Tisbury homeowners say they have been caught off-guard by the recent implementation of a septic system inspection program, approved by town voters several years ago. A letter from Tisbury's board of health (BOH), mailed to about 90 homeowners to date, explained that each septic system must be inspected by a state certified septic inspector within 60 days of the letter's date. A report must be received at the BOH office within 30 days of the inspection.
The BOH letter explains that the septic inspection program stems from a vote by Tisbury residents at annual town meeting in 2002 to adopt Title V on-site sewage disposal system management regulations. The regulations provide for the regular inspection and appropriate long-term management of all privately owned sewage and disposal systems within the town, the letter states. All homeowners will be put on a rotation for a required septic inspection every seven years.
"Officially, we've sent out three rounds of letters, 30 in a round, mostly to homeowners whose homes have been purchased or built in the last seven years or have had substantial renovations or upgrades," said Tisbury health agent and selectman Tom Pachico. "We also are trying to inspect systems in the most environmentally sensitive areas first."
For example, Hines Point, due to its proximity to Lagoon Pond, is one of the areas targeted first for septic inspections. Homes close to the Lagoon in both Oak Bluffs and Tisbury fall under stricter regulations when installing new septic systems because the area has been designated a district of critical planning concern by the Martha's Vineyard Commission.
In a presentation Mr. Pachico made to the Martha's Vineyard Water Alliance last October, he said that Tisbury's wastewater management program was proposed more than seven years ago when the town put together a partial sewering plan for the downtown area. Planners decided it made sense to address onsite septic systems as well.
In addition to instituting an on-site septic system inspection and maintenance program, Mr. Pachico said objectives for the wastewater management program included identifying environmentally sensitive areas, defining wastewater management districts, creating a database to track on-site septic and disposal systems, and setting up a betterment loan program.
With funding for the wastewater management program delayed more than a year, the computer software to handle the septic inspection program became outdated, Mr. Pachico explained this week. However, the board of health has been able to move forward with the septic inspection program, inputting data about properties and septic systems into a new online software program has enabled the BOH to move forward recently with the septic inspection program, Mr. Pachico added.
He took issue with homeowners who said they were unaware of the inspection program. "Well, they should know about it - we advertised in the paper and everything else," Mr. Pachico said.
Along with a notification letter, the BOH includes a list of eight certified inspectors on the Island who have agreed to offer reduced rates to Tisbury homeowners. Although Mr. Pachico owns a septic business and is certified as a Title V inspector himself, he said inspectors are not allowed to conduct inspections or business in the town in which they live, which eliminates any conflict of interest.
When homeowners receive a septic inspection notice, they can pick an inspector of their choice to locate the septic system on their property and open it up. "When it's ready and easily accessible, they're going to call me and I can take a look at it, and say yes, no, pump it, put it on risers, everything's fine, or whatever the outcome may be," Mr. Pachico said.
If a fix can be made, for example, such as putting a tank in front of an existing system, Mr. Pachico said he makes that call in the field when he signs off on an inspection. "Most of them don't need to be pumped and most of them don't need to be replaced," he said. "We've had a few failures, but most of them are fine. Some of them just need minor modifications."
As the inspection program has gotten underway, so have the rumors about it around town.
"People have told me they've heard if they don't have a new system that meets Title Five regulations, they've got to rip it out, and it's going to cost them $30,000," Mr. Pachico said. "If a septic system fails, they have to address why it failed. They may not have to upgrade totally."
Many people misunderstand the meaning of the term "Title V," Mr. Pachico said. "Title Five is a set of rules, not a type of system, that tells you what's allowable, what's failed, and what isn't," he explained. "There are only a few reasons why a system would fail totally, and one is that it is chock-full, and the other is that it is overflowing into the groundwater. So you would have to upgrade it at some point anyway."
The cost for a septic system meeting Title V standards averages around $10,000, Mr. Pachico said.
Tisbury offers a loan program for those with low to moderate income who have to address failed systems. The state awarded Tisbury a $100,000 grant to assist homeowners with septic system upgrades and replacements. Other assistance is provided by zero-percent loan program funded by another grant for $200,000 from the state. To cover administrative costs, the town charges five percent interest on the loan, which is put into the general fund.
Applicants apply to the board of health, and once approved, Tisbury treasurer Tim McLean makes the financial arrangements. Loans are paid off on a schedule or at the time a house is sold.
Mr. Pachico said he could understand why nobody likes the mandatory inspection program, which was not his idea and not something that he particularly favored. "There's no question about it - it's another added expense," he said. "We're trying to make it as painless as possible."
According to the BOH inspectors list, which includes their rates, homeowners can expect to pay $100 to $325 for an inspection and paperwork, if no labor is required. If a pump-out is required, the average cost is 55 cents a gallon, which usually amounts to $550 to $800 for the average home, Mr. Pachico said.
In the meantime, Tisbury homeowners can expect their number will eventually come up in the septic inspection lottery. Those who have had inspections done within the last seven years can be exempted by providing a copy of their report.