On August 22, the Board of County Commissioners met to discuss a litany of agenda items. One of the issues discussed at the lengthy, five-hour-plus meeting was the Regulation of Onsite Sewage Treatment and Disposal Systems (OSTDS), otherwise known as septic systems. The item designated file number 12638 was presented by Andrea Wilcock, the Environmental Health Director of the Florida Department of Health in Hernando County.
Due to the signing of House Bill 1379 on May 30 of this year, changes were made to how the Health Department permits septic systems. The director came before the board in August to present those changes and to help educate homeowners on what is required under the new rules.
The House bill, which went into effect on the first of July, amended the Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act of 2016. The areas of the code that saw changes were section 373.811, F.S., and section 403.067, F.S. These new requirements were put in place with the goal of reducing nitrogen pollution by 65 percent moving forward. All septic systems installed or applied for before July 1 are beholden to the prior regulations and are thus not required to implement the ENR (Enhanced Nitrogen Reducing) system.
While repairs are not yet required under the new rules in the Weeki Wachee BMAP (Basin Management Action Plans) that went into effect in 2019, ENR systems are now mandatory for all qualifying properties within it. A BMAP is an area that the Department of Environmental Protection has identified where nitrogen loads could be reduced. These nitrogen-reducing measures were previously only compulsory on land designated as PFAs (Priority Focus Areas). This more than doubles the footprint of the required area from roughly 90,000 acres to over 200,000 acres.
The only areas where repairs are currently mandatory are the Banana River Lagoon, Central Indian River Lagoon, the North Indian River Lagoon, and the Mosquito Lagoon Reasonable Assurance Plan, none of which are within the limits of Hernando County.
For homeowners who are concerned they will be compelled to upgrade their systems, the environmental health director insists that they will not. Hernando County Utilities did begin the Septic Upgrade Incentive Program in February, which encourages existing homeowners to upgrade to the ENR system by offering a grant of $7,500 towards the new system.
According to Bridgewater Environmental Services’ website, these upgrades to existing septic systems average $20,000. While the stipend helps alleviate some of the financial concerns, particularly expensive fixes still have the potential to drain homeowners’ wallets substantially. When asked how long this incentive would last by County Commissioner Brian Hawkins, Wilcock stated that the program would run “until the money does run out, it will end, and then I assume restart.”
The size of land required for these nitrogen-reducing systems used to be less than an acre or less than 43,560 square feet. Under the amended code, this now applies to all properties that are an acre or smaller.
Under the previous guidelines, property owners slated to have a sewer connection within five years (through the septic to sewer project) could install a conventional septic system, but now that language has been removed. There is no longer a provision that allows conventional systems to be installed when sewer will be available in less than five years.
If homeowners feel their systems need not comply with any portion of the rule, they may wish to appeal this to the Department of Health, but there is “no variance” under the new code regarding ENR. Despite this, after a homeowner’s petition is denied, they may file for an administrative hearing within 21 days of receiving the denial notice. Owners may also file for an extension beyond this 21-day limit if necessary, and if the hearing is unsatisfactory, they may appeal within 30 days for judicial review.