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December 08, 2016
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Septic subjections; Townships say policy will reduce land values

DAMASCUS TWP & BERLIN TWP, PA — The supervisors in Damascus and Berlin townships have sent letters to the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) objecting to a proposed policy regarding the installation of new on-lot septic systems in high quality and exceptional value watersheds.

Under the proposed policy, in areas with exceptional value and high quality waters, septic systems could not be placed closer than 150 feet from a body of water, or 30 feet from a stream. There also would be a requirement for underground septic systems to be surrounded by a barrier to prevent the effluent from traveling underground. This would be done to prevent nitrates from getting into the water.

The DEP’s proposed policy states that septic systems have been implicated as a cause or contributor of nitrate contamination, especially when installed in high density residential development areas. But the supervisors in Damascus insist the problem does not exist and is “extremely unlikely” to exist in the foreseeable future.

“The Township of Damascus prides itself on its pristine streams and its high quality waters, which have been confirmed by testing, and by federal, state and local conservation agencies/offices,” the letter states. “The Township of Damascus does not have a nitrate problem, nor is one likely in the future. In fact, we can find no science supporting a nitrate problem; to the contrary, the draft policy states, ‘nitrates in ground water is trending downward overall.…’”

If the DEP’s new policy is put into place, the most valuable land—that which is adjacent to lakes and streams—will become unbuildable, undevelopable and unusable for most purposes, according to Damascus and Berlin supervisors’ letters. “This circumstance could result, and probably will result, in decreased land values due to restrictions on the use of the land. The most likely result would be a decreased tax base that will burden municipalities, counties and school districts,” the Damascus letter states.

In Berlin’s letter, supervisor/secretary Cathy Hunt noted that the current on-lot septic system practices in place in northeastern Pennsylvania have worked. “The water quality is proof,” she wrote.

Among the current practices are site-specific soil analysis, inspection repair programs, replacement systems, proper siting and other site-specific requirements.

Hunt also noted that the DEP’s proposed policy seems to contradict itself, as it reads in part, “In the soil absorption field, organic compounds are degraded and impurities are filtered out in the soil matrix. A septic system that is properly designed, located, installed and maintained through periodic pumping of the septic tank can treat sewage safely and effectively for decades.”

“These are your words,” she wrote.

In addition, Berlin expresses further concern because it says the proposed policy makes no specific suggestion on how to deal with all of the previous lots that have been subdivided and sold as buildable lots. “This policy also excludes the current practices that have been used successfully in northeastern Pennsylvania,” according to Berlin’s letter.

The new policy also would create administrative burdens for the townships because they would have to track the best management practices required on each property, according to the supervisors. “All of this burdensome action is to prevent a problem which does not exist,” the Damascus letter said.

The proposed policy also states the townships must have a sewage management program, which would cost each residence about $500 per year, in addition to administrative costs, according to the Damascus letter.

“We are certain the combined efforts of local planning and zoning, as well as having a qualified SEO (sewage enforcement officer), working with DEP guidance have created a record of improving ground water in our township,” the Damascus supervisors stated in the letter.

Berlin’s letter said the proposed policy could cause many residents to leave Pennsylvania for a “more friendly state to live in.” The letter added, “This will also cause many of our young people to leave Pennsylvania because they would not be able to afford a home.”

The DEP has extended the public comment period on the policy and will continue to accept comments through June 3.