Alternative septic in Albemarle County: new technology, new worries

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Employees examine a setup at Charlottesville's Living Machine, a company that builds high-tech wastewater reclamation systems based on living wetlands. Their systems are one highly advanced example of alternative onsite septic systems, which, per state mandate, Virginia municipalities can no longer ban. Photo by John Robinson. Employees examine a setup at Charlottesville's Living Machine, a company that builds high-tech wastewater reclamation systems based on living wetlands. Their systems are one highly advanced example of alternative onsite septic systems, which, per state mandate, Virginia municipalities can no longer ban. Photo by John Robinson.

A slightly abridged version of this story appears in the August 28 issue of C-VILLE. As always, there’s more that we wanted to tell—and we’re glad we can offer it here. —Graelyn Brashear 

What to do with wastewater has long been a limiting factor in rural development. If space or soil made a septic field impossible, a would-be builder was, for the most part, out of luck. The development of so-called alternative onsite septic systems that contain and process sewage is giving landowners another option, but not everyone is welcoming the new technology with open arms.

Officials in northern Virginia started clamoring for a special set of regulations for the new systems when some of them failed, “and failed spectacularly,” said Albemarle County Supervisor Ann Mallek.

Dan Holmes, state policy director for the Piedmont Environmental Council, said the new systems are more like mini wastewater treatment plants than traditional septic fields, and they need regular maintenance to work properly. But those check-ups are costly, and sometimes didn’t happen, said Holmes.

“In certain areas they would have fairly high rates of failure,” he said. “For every day one of these things is malfunctioning, it basically could operate just like a straight pipe for wastewater.” What’s worse, he said, the systems are often in areas with compromised drainage and soils that don’t perc.

State legislators addressed some of those concerns when they adopted new regulations last December—once-yearly maintenance checks being one of them. But at the same time, the state removed local governments’ ability to impose their own restrictions. And that has some elected officials worried.

Mallek joined fellow Democratic Supervisor Chris Dumler in voting against adjusting the county’s zoning rules to bring them up to speed with state regulations—a symbolic move, she said, but one she felt was important.

“Virginia already has low requirements for percolation for a septic field,” she said. “Our water quality standards are among the lowest in the country. So when we’re talking about removing more of those rules, it’s very scary.”

The worries go beyond wastewater, though. There’s vast rural acreage in the Commonwealth that was previously undevelopable because it was unsuitable for septic fields. The state’s acceptance of alternative systems changes things.

“Localities now have to adopt land use plans, zoning ordinance language, and subdivision ordinance language for these areas, anticipating what could happen now that lands once not open to development all of a sudden become a free-for-all under their current ordinances and plans,” said Holmes.

But the technology is here—and advancing. Charlottesville-based alternative septic company Living Machine creates self-contained systems modeled after tidal wetlands to recycle wastewater. They’ve installed their plant-filled tanks all over the country, including a high-profile setup in the lobby of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission building (yes, indoors—the plant-and-gravel filtration effectively squelches any smells). So far, Living Machine has built very few systems Virginia, said spokesman William Kirksey, but that’s likely to change.

When it comes to alternative septic, “the overall climate around the country is improving for a number of reasons,” he said. Companies like his are developing cleaner, safer systems—albeit more expensive ones—that keep sewage waste out of the ground and produce reusable water, “so you can save money by decentralizing your wastewater and water systems,” Kirksey said. “You don’t have to run a pipeline from a distant development to a water treatment plant.”

Will it impact rural development? Most likely, Kirksey said, but localities have a number of tools they can use to control growth—and putting the brakes on new technology shouldn’t one of them. “If there are reasons for wanting to limit development in an area, you have to do it for other reasons,” he said.

Republican County Supervisor Ken Boyd agreed. “I’m not afraid of the technology,” he said. “I’m a property rights person. If people have property, they ought to be able to do what they want to do with it.”

Albemarle Director of Community Development Mark Graham said there aren’t many of the systems currently up and running in the area—in part because local regulations have mostly made them feasible only when traditional septic systems fail, but also because the alternative options cost about two to three times more. But there’s reason to believe they’ll become a more popular option. Despite the added expense of installation and maintenance, they have the potential to raise some land values considerably.

“If you had a piece of property that had no development potential because it was simply not a place you could put a septic field, and now you could put one of these (alternative systems) there, all of a sudden it becomes a developable lot again,” he said. It definitely has the potential to change the dynamic of growth in Albemarle, Graham said, but in a county where supply of rural land that can be developed has so far well outpaced demand, it’s hard to predict exactly what will happen.

But Mallek said there’s good reason to remain cautious. Tested, trusted companies like Living Machine aren’t the norm, she said, and most alternative septic systems have real potential to fail without close oversight—and that could harm not just one homeowner, but many.

That’s why she intends to push for tighter state regulations. It’s the only option, she said, because when it comes to the new septic systems, “the state legislature has very effectively put the kibosh on local government.”

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