Harold Kilgore maneuvers the excavator expertly behind a home under construction in Flowery Branch’s Misty Harbor subdivision, near Lake Lanier, digging deep into the Georgia-brown earth where a septic tank will be placed.
The job is a lifestyle as much as a paycheck.
“This is all I do,” Kilgore, the owner of Gravelator Systems in Talmo, later said.
But he wonders how his septic install and repair business will be impacted by the Department of Public Health’s new approach to a decades-old rule.
Kilgore’s concerns are not about the bottom line, however.
“If anything, it would help my business,” he said.
Rather, Kilgore is worried his customers will take the hit.
And it’s not just homeowners on Lanier who are taking notice.
Officials with Habitat for Humanity of Hall County are itching over its potential impact on affordable housing development, which census figures show is already lacking in the region.
The rules for approving septic tanks have long been interpreted to allow for a sort of “grandfather” clause, protecting primarily smaller lots established prior to 1984, according to Kilgore.
“In other words, if a lot was approved under the septic rules in place at the time it was platted, then it would still be build-able and today’s standards, which are much more stringent, do not apply,” said Tim Williams, associate executive director for Habitat for Humanity of Hall County.
Jennifer Fulbright, District 2 environmental health director, said her office began evaluating county procedures for “approval of lots utilizing on-site sewage management systems in each of our 13 counties” late last year.
“No rule change has taken place, nor is a new rule being proposed in regards to permitting lots for septic systems,” Fulbright added.
Instead, Fulbright said, the district office clarified the minimum requirements necessary for approving septic system permits — including land area requirements for both initial and replacement systems, as well as county zoning and setback ordinances.
The rules “were established to provide for the orderly and safe development of property utilizing on-site sewage management systems, in the interest of public health,” Fulbright said.
Now, plans to build three- and four-bedroom homes with septic on less than an acre lot could be restricted to just two bedrooms, Kilgore said.
He concedes that the rule does not exempt older properties, but said its implementation has only recently changed.
Kilgore is currently working with a customer, for example, who “three months ago would have been approved,” he said.
But officials with environmental watchdog Chattahoochee Riverkeeper believe the rules could help improve water flow and quality in the region.
Jason Ulseth, who leads the nonprofit, said serving new lots and residences with a publicly owned sewer system is better for Hall’s water quality than septic tanks, “which have been associated with high levels of E. coli in nearby streams when not properly maintained.”
“Septic tanks have a lower rate of water returning to the river and lake as they tend to lose a lot of water through evaporation in the drain field,” he added.
Mark Watkins and his wife are building a new home on the Lanier lakefront and stopped by the Flowery Branch worksite to see just how Kilgore installs a septic system.
When Watkins heard about how the rule might be applied, he said he was concerned that his property might face new scrutiny.
Existing and prospective homeowners like Watkins fear lost property values if they have to reduce the size of their planned homes.
But, for now, construction on Watkins’ home continues.
Kilgore said he hopes his advanced treatment systems for lake properties, which is what Watkins is having installed, could be used as a compromise.
Additionally, the initial and full backup system requirements under the department’s rule might be cost-prohibitive, which Williams said “could make it very difficult for Habitat to acquire build-able lots.”
Habitat for Humanity’s Copper Glen subdivision will not be impacted by the rule.
Williams is wondering whether older lots will even be approved for septic.
“We regularly acquire these grandfathered lots as part of our mission model,” he said, including a recently acquired property near Lula, “which fell under this rule.”
“If they are successful in implementing this change, it will cripple our ability to fulfill our mission of providing affordable homeownership,” Williams added.