Former Martin Commissioner explains restoration of septic rules: ‘A gift for our waterways’

Maggy Hurchalla (Source: Facebook)

 

[Maggy Hurchalla was a 20-year Martin County Commissioner, an active member of numerous Governor Commissions on the Everglades, water and planning, a lifelong advocate for wetlands preservation, a winner of national, state and local environmental and conservation awards regarding wetlands, land planning, water studies. She is a resident of Rocky Point.]

Tallahassee gave Martin County waterways a late Christmas present when a state planning agency issued a final order finding the county’s amendments to the sewer chapter of its comprehensive plan were in compliance with state law on all counts.

The saga started in 2009 when a group calling itself The Future Group proposed massive changes to the plan, which guides growth in the county. Commissioners accepted the group’s submittal and adopted the changes in a series of amendments.

Among other things, those amendments removed all local policies on septic systems from the plan. The Future Group argued the state knew best and local restrictions were unnecessary.

From 1982 to 2009 Martin County had the strictest policies for septic systems of any county on the Indian River Lagoon. Those policies encouraged the expansion of the regional sewer system in the urban area and left Martin County, 30 years later, with fewer individual septic systems than any other county on the lagoon.

The new majority on the County Commission that took office in November 2012 started an initiative to put back key protections that had been removed from the comprehensive plan. They started by working on restoring the overall goals that had been removed from Chapters 1 and 2 of the plan. That effort still is hung up in a legal challenge by the developers of Hobe Grove.

The next step was to restore the sewer element of the plan. The commission directed the staff to clear up confusions and put back the local policies that had effectively limited the number of new septic systems.

County staff amassed dozens of studies showing high-density, high-risk septic systems and small-package sewer plants contributed to bacterial pollution and toxic algae blooms in the estuary.

Key parts of the proposed amendment included:

  • No new multifamily, commercial or industrial development on septic systems
  • No new single family developments on septic where lots were smaller than one acre
  • No new supersized 10,000-gallon-per-day septic systems
  • No new package plants

Because package plants were no longer allowed, the commercial zoning overlays at rural Interstate 95 intersections at Bridge Road and at State Road 714 were removed. That zoning had been created when I-95 was opened in Martin County because there were no gas stations from the Palm Beach County line to the St. Lucie County line. Since then, the Kanner Highway intersection with I-95 and the Palm City intersection with Florida’s Turnpike have built up to provide a large array of gas stations, motels and restaurants for expressway travelers. In December 2014 the Martin County Commission adopted the changes to in a 3-2 vote. Commissioners Heard, Fielding and Scott voted for it.

Commissioner Doug Smith objected it was unfair to restrict septic systems in new developments until such time as the county had committed to requiring all existing homes on septic systems to hook up to the regional system.

Commissioner John Haddox argued the amendment was designed to stop all growth and was not about protecting the river. Haddox insisted the county would lose in court because the amendment violated the Right to Farm Act by limiting septic system size in rural areas.

Agricultural interests and developers challenged the amendment.

By the time it got to trial, only one challenger was left.

The administrative law judge found the amendments were in compliance with state law and backed by data and analysis.

On Jan. 4, the state Department of Economic Opportunity issued a final order confirming the judge’s ruling.

The amendments are now part of the comprehensive plan.

In December, the Martin County Commission moved to provide regional sewer service to the two areas of the county that had been identified as the biggest threat to the river. Those areas have been identified as hot spots for pollution for more than 15 years, but no action had been taken to solve the problem.

Martin County residents can again be proud that we are doing our part to save and restore our waterways.

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