BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County property owners with septic systems will not be required to have the systems inspected every five years.
The County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to opt out of a state mandate that requires counties and municipalities with large springs to adopt an inspection ordinance. Hernando County is home to Weeki Wachee Spring, one of 33 first-magnitude springs in Florida.
"The timing's bad, the science is lacking and it's something … that many folks simply cannot afford right now," Commissioner Dave Russell said.
Commissioners agreed, however, that faulty septic tanks are a problem in the county, especially near the Weeki Wachee River and the coast. They asked staffers to schedule a workshop with local Health Department officials in the coming months to gauge the scope of the problem and come up with a strategy for dealing with it.
Echoing concerns raised by Commissioner John Druzbick a moment earlier, Commissioner Jeff Stabins said taking that step was the only way he could support opting out of the state mandate.
"There are homes along the Weeki Wachee that are very old and have very old septic systems and pose a great risk to the river and our natural spring," Stabins said.
In 2010, Gov. Charlie Crist signed a measure that required all septic systems in Florida to be inspected by a qualified contractor every five years. State Department of Health statistics indicate that approximately 2 million septic systems statewide are 20 years or older, which is the average lifespan of a system in Florida.
The law was designed to reduce water pollution, but sparked an outcry from critics, who called the measure an unnecessary one-size-fits-all approach that put too large a burden on homeowners, who would have to pay several hundred dollars for each inspection. Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill last month repealing the inspection mandate, but counties and municipalities with first-magnitude springs are still required to adopt a five-year inspection ordinance unless a super-majority of the local governing body votes not to do so.
Among the supporters of the bill was Spring Hill Republican Rob Schenck, who encouraged commissioners to opt out of the requirement. Russell told commissioners at a meeting last week that he had already asked the county attorney's office to draft the resolution.
It doesn't make sense, he said Tuesday, to adopt the state's blanket five-year mandate and force homeowners in Ridge Manor to pay for septic tank inspections when residents who live in northern Pasco County have an impact on the groundwater, too. He agreed, though, that the commission should not simply reject the inspection mandate and do nothing more.
"I would suggest working with the Health Department on identifying areas of concern, but it would behoove us all to put this (mandate) to bed and get it off the table," Russell said.
The impact in Hernando would have been substantial. In a county of roughly 75,000 homes, there are about 55,000 septic tanks, according to the Health Department. The state law would have required a tank to be pumped and certified. It would also have called for an evaluation of the drain field's size, placement and condition. State officials estimated the cost for that inspection at between $500 and $600.
Hernando Beach resident and business owner Fran Baird urged the commissioners during the public comment portion of Tuesday's meeting to think carefully about their stand on the septic tank inspections.
"We really need to protect our waters,'' Baird said.
Even supporters of the mandate, though, have acknowledged that there are better ways to address faulty septic systems. Gary Maidhof, operations and project officer for Citrus County, told the Times last week that the commission there might opt out, too, because the county already has a local ordinance that requires septic tank inspections when a property is sold or a building permit is pulled for additions and other large projects.
Jim Stevenson, the former chairman of the Florida Springs Task Force, expressed dismay when told of the Hernando commission's vote, but said he is encouraged by the apparent willingness to address faulty septic systems. While pollution from those systems might not reach Weeki Wachee Spring, it still poses a risk to the environment and to drinking water.
"If we contaminate the groundwater beneath a septic tank, that water is flowing toward a neighbor or toward a river," Stevenson said. "Sometimes, when something's political like septic tanks, you have to take baby steps, and one of the first steps is raising homeowner awareness."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]