The clock is ticking for 18 Oxford homeowners who haven’t adhered to a city ordinance requiring residents within 100 feet of the city’s sanitary sewer system to connect.
Partially in response to the 2006 building sewer and connection ordinance and the extensions to the city’s sewer line in a 2011 project, the residents who still haven’t plugged in have been mailed a notification of the Feb. 4, 2015 deadline to connect.
“Of the 18 homeowners, 11 were already in areas where the sewer line was laid in 2011,” said Oxford City Manager Bob Schwartz. “They were notified at that time to connect and they did not do it.”
Some residents, according to Schwartz, have recently moved into their homes and are being notified for the first time. After the 120 days allotted as a grace period before penalties, residents failing to meet the deadline could face police citations to appear in municipal court — and risk fines as serious as $1,000 a day for noncompliance.
“Before the deadline, you need to pay the tap fee,” said Bob Schwartz, Oxford City Manager, “or sign the tap fee agreement and sign a contract with a plumber to disconnect you from the septic tank… As part of that project, we built the taps, so there’s a piece of sewer pipe coming out of the ground near their property.”
At the October City Council meeting, the Council unanimously voted to reduce the standard $3,600 tap fee to a temporary and one-time $1,700 fee. Payment plans are also included in the notification for residents on limited incomes, and aside from tap fee, hiring the plumber is an additional cost.
“You can’t just go out and install it yourself,” said Mike Hopkins, of the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority.
“You need a competent professional to do it and make sure it’s correct. More than likely, you’ll need whoever’s system it is… to have an inspector come out and check the connection to make sure it’s secure and safe before you cover it up.”
Septic to Sewer
Oxford switching from a septic tank system to the sanitary sewer line, according to Schwartz, is partially for environmental reasons. And, “it makes more sense to have someone tapped into the sanitary sewer line,” he said.
Some benefits are more cosmetic or social.
“The first being you’ll never have to deal with Environmental Health ever again, because you’re going through a county sewer,” said Joseph Sternberg, Director of Environmental Health for the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale Environmental Health Department. “The second thing is that you have the potential to be creative and have better potential to control the design of your lot to your desires.”
Sternberg puts additional emphasis on home-additions, saying larger renovations are harder with a septic system.
“With a septic tank, you can’t pour a driveway or a basketball court over a septic field,” he said. “With a sewer, you have a lot more flexibility with what you do with your property.”
And he believes sewer lines are more reliable.
“Septic fails,” Sternberg said. “They all fail eventually. Sewers may fail as well, getting clogged or breaking … but it’s less frequent. The only downside is you have sewer tapping fees and sewer maintenance … with a septic tank you’ll have a little bit of maintenance every few or so years, and it’ll break down in about 20-30 years.”
Schwartz said Oxford sewer lines will be extended in the future, with money budgeted in the capitol plan. But not all residents in city are required to tap into the line.
“First things first, let’s get the people connected that need to be,” he said. “Sewers flow downhill, so you can only tap into the sewer line on lots that are downhill, or you tend to serve lots based on gravity flow. So some lots are impractical to serve and remain using a septic tank for quite a long time.”
Weighing the Risks
Residents who remain on a septic tank have minimal environmental risks, but take full-responsibility and liability for maintenance and inspection.
“It is considered a nuisance, but not a health hazard,” Sternberg said, in regards to airborne risks and smell. “If they’re designed correctly, they should not be causing issues to ground water, or runoff or any other type of issue.”
Septic users could potentially save money if maintained properly, Hopkins said.
“There’s a reduction in homeowner cost and an overall life cost in a septic system,” Hopkins said. “If they’re pumping it out correctly, which is every three to five years, there’s costs to that.”
But tapping into the sewer line removes homeowner burden.
“From an environmental standpoint, the sanitary sewer side is regulated,” Hopkins said. “It’s monitored by someone everyday, compared to a septic system that is dependent on the homeowner to make decisions on when it needs to be pumped or if it’s failing.”
If the septic system is not maintained, there are potential risks.
“If you don’t maintain it, or if you allow things to grow into the drain fields you can reduce the functionality of the system,” he said. “It’s not catastrophic to the whole community, but at the same time, if it leaked into a certain area it could leak into the groundwater system — there’s creeks, surface water and stuff like that.”
But Hopkins explains that risks are further reduced in the Oxford area due to the type of soil.
“The soil here in Georgia is not like Florida, where water can travel easily through the system,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of clay here … that clay does kind of retain it, it doesn’t travel as rapidly if it were in the sandy soil of South Georgia and Florida … It’s not like it’s going to travel miles in a period of time, but it can travel some distance.”
Conversely, there are potential risks to a sanitary sewer line.
“When you’re on septic, you’re on your own stuff,” Sternberg said. “When a sewer line breaks … and if it were to back up into your house, you’re dealing with everybody’s stuff. If someone had something like Shigella, or other fecal-borne illnesses and you didn’t have it, and it came into your house, you could be at risk of getting it. But those risks are minimal.”
Schwartz wants to see the 18 Oxford residents pay the fee and connect before the deadline to avoid penalties. And residents in the future, who are not yet within the bounds of required sewer connection, may have to drop their septic system with extension plans to come.
“We spent four or five months going over a map to make sure which lot was which, how close it was to the sewer line, and which lines were not connected,” Schwartz said. “Our long-term plans are to make some extensions.”