New septic rules = reduced home sales?

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News septic tank rules worry Realtors who fear that homes sales could

be affected.

By Hans Laetz/ Special to The Malibu Times

The Pacific Ocean will be cleaner when the State Water Resources Control Board starts enforcing AB 885, the new state law that will regulate home septic tanks, coastal advocates say. But Realtors worry that future home sales could fall through if septic tanks must be inspected when homes are sold.

Those were the two major messages delivered last week when the state water board heard testimony about AB 885’s implementation at Malibu City Hall. AB 885 became law in 2000 and was supposed to be in effect in 2004, but has been delayed while the water board formulates specific policies.

Heal The Bay founder Mark Gold decried those delays.

“This law is grossly overdue, and, in the meantime, Surfrider Beach is among those still impacted by septic systems,” Gold said. “It’s typically one of the most polluted beaches in the state.”

The breach location at Surfrider Beach has received an “F” dry water quality rating for most of this year from Heal the Bay.

The new rules would affect new construction and large remodels, and could require inspections and repairs at the time of a home sale.

Malibu Realtor Terry Lucoff asked the board to step back from a tentative plan to require that septic systems be inspected and certified functional whenever a house is sold.

“We applaud the direction we’re going, but the objection we have is that the monitoring is done at the point of sale,” Lucoff said.

Noting that the average house for sale in Los Angeles tops $500,000, Lucoff said the added cost of septic inspections could only drive more people from the market.

“Is the buyer going to have to put in the new septic system or is the seller?” Lucoff asked. “We think the trigger ought to be a major remodel or a new sewage system.”

Agoura Hills contractor Richard Sherman, who said he inspects about 100 Malibu-area septic tanks a year, said the cost of examining a 40-year-old septic tank and leach field in a congested Malibu neighborhood can exceed $20,000, if trees have to be removed, driveways dug up and fences torn down.

“A lot of the old county records are on 5-by-8-inch cards that have an ‘X’ drawn on a square,” Sherman said. “It’s an expensive process to do this. For me to go out and just inspect a simple system can cost between $500 and $1,600.”

But Hillary Houser, director of a Santa Barbara clean water group called Heal the Ocean, said inspecting a home’s septic tank and repairing any damage at the time of sale “is the same thing as getting a termite inspection.”

“We’ve been ignoring this septic tank problem on the beaches and we’ve been getting away with murder,” she said.

“We know this sewage is ending up in the ocean,” she added, citing Rincon Beach, a polluted Santa Barbara surf break where her group has been working for seven years to connect beachfront houses to a proposed sewage system.

AB 885 will affect 1.2 million septic tank homes across the state, but in the Malibu area, most of the impact will be in unincorporated areas in the Santa Monica Mountains. Craig George, the city of Malibu’s sanitation specialist, said the city has anticipated most of AB 885’s technical provisions in septic code revisions already implemented.

Countywide or in unincorporated L.A. County, however, the story is different. County officials said they worry that the new policies being written could open up development on mountain lots that are currently unbuildable if septic tanks were used, but could support houses if advanced sewage treatment systems are deployed. Also, it could close down development to others.

“While that might induce development in many areas, if new septic tanks installations are prohibited that would reduce the ability of some people to develop their property,” said Richard Wagener, the bureau director for environmental protection at the Los Angeles County Department of Health.

The net result would be a crush of people seeking clarification, and new development permits in the Santa Monica Mountains, and possible urban growth there at a time that the Health Department does not have the staff to handle it, Wagener said.