Septic Setbacks

Septic Filter Bed – 100 Foot Setback Amendment

Question:   Why do you not support the 100 foot setback amendment to the Comprehensive Zoning By Law 2014 -14?

Answer:  Everyone of us is absolutely committed to maintaining and improving the quality of our natural water resources in Muskoka.

We all agree that moving development back from the shoreline, increasing natural vegetation and implementation of strict rules on tree removal are positive steps to maintaining healthy lakes and rivers.    The increase in lot frontage and lot sizes of waterfront properties and reductions in shoreline coverage, are all positive moves to improve water quality.

All which, I fully support.

The resolution on the surface looks like another positive step to improve natural water quality in Muskoka.    However, I contend, while on the surface it appears well intentioned, it is in fact poorly conceived and with minimal benefit.   Let me tell you why.

First, over the past 15 years there have been many improvements to Class D Sewage Systems :   improved tanks, grease filters, aerobic and anaerobic  treatment,  improved phosphorous binding  in filter bed substrates,  full bed rather than trench treatment for the supernate.   In addition there has been significant reduction in phosphates in soaps and detergents, as well as the introduction of low flow toilets, showers and  high efficiency washing machines to reduce water and detergent usage.   Discharges from the filter media are of the highest quality ever.

Second, the recently revamped Ontario Building Code (2014) sets a minimum set back of 50 ft  from water.  We have increased setbacks in our District or Township Official Plan, and our proposed Zoning By Law amendment.  Yes, I would agree lets set the system further back from the water if it makes sense, mine is back over 200 feet,  but I question why regulate something that is a site specific decision.  Are we smarter than the province?  Do we know something they do not?   Why regulate a higher standard when the Provincial Laws ultimately prevail.   Ultimately, at an OMB hearing I contend provincial standards will prevail.

Third,  the vast majority of building lots on TML waterfront properties are developed and currently have in place operating septic systems, many, perhaps most are at less than 100 ft from the high water mark.  These systems will remain and can be repaired and enlarged as a right in current locations.   This amendment to the by law will do nothing to move them further back from the water.    They will simply now be legal non complying structures

Fourth, the TML currently has a system that works.   Septic Installers/Builders apply for a permit based on what they believe is the best location on the specific property.   This location is confirmed or altered by our Inspector responsible for septic installations.   It is 100% site specific.   In addition TML has an annual septic system inspection program that concentrates annually on identified higher risk areas i.e. Three Mile Lake 2006,  Moon River 2013,  Island properties 2014 and Wallace Bay/Windermere  2015.    The vast majority of system complaints I hear about, are from systems regulated and controlled by the MOECC, not the Class D systems that predominate on TML residential properties.

Fifth, is my most serious concern.   Most systems today are gravity feed systems.  With cottages and homes at 66 ft or less and filter beds at a minimum of 100 ft, more systems will require mechanical pumping systems that are subject to mechanical failure, electrical outages and freezing temperatures.  These systems will require raw or partially treated sewage to be transported under pressure via pipes, pumps and valving to a filter bed that will undoubtedly be located  at significantly higher elevation than the septic tank and pump chamber.   Failure of these systems and release of raw or partially treated sewage over the surface of the ground is a significantly greater risk to the environment than a gravity feed filter bed at 60 or 80 ft from the lake.

Sixth, is the additional paperwork and time delays for staff, contractors and the public, not to mention application fees, when a variance from this by law is requested.    All, in my opinion, for essentially zero environmental improvement.   Planning staff in their report has outlined their concerns regarding processing an expected 20 to 40 applications per year for septic systems via the planning process i.e. Committee of Adjustment, Council and potentially some to the OMB.   Our own Septic Inspector feels the extra paperwork, cost and time delays are unwarranted and there will be negligible improvement in water quality and potentially even a deterioration, with delayed upgrades and sewage spills due to mechanical malfunctions and systems being put in less than desirable locations.

Seventh,  I will be watching the number of septic system applications that flow into our Planning Department.   I will not support the addition of staff or holding additional meetings, if requested, to handle these applications.   Cottage Associations including the MLA tell me that taxpayers are over burdened, this amendment will add to the burden, with minimal benefit.   If this by law amendment  proves a bureaucratic quagmire in 2016, I will be requesting that Council consider repealing this portion of the by law.