Politics & Government

Wastewater system won’t necessarily be inspected in some home sales

From left, Sedgwick County Commissioners Tim Norton, Karl Peterjohn, Jim Howell, Richard Ranzau and Dave Unruh discuss the de-regulation of some wastewater inspections during a meeting last week. (Sept. 7, 2016)
From left, Sedgwick County Commissioners Tim Norton, Karl Peterjohn, Jim Howell, Richard Ranzau and Dave Unruh discuss the de-regulation of some wastewater inspections during a meeting last week. (Sept. 7, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

When Elaine and Billy McDaniel were selling their northern Sedgwick County home a few years ago, they had the lagoon on their property inspected by a county employee.

Billy McDaniel said he thought the inspection went well. But the wastewater inspection report came back with multiple code violations.

The McDaniels needed to add a 1,000-gallon septic tank. The addition and repairs would cost about $8,000.

Billy McDaniel said he felt “blind-sided.”

“It just floored me when they came back to me and said, ‘You need to bring it up to the latest standards,’ ” he said.

Sedgwick County commissioners voted 3-2 last week to de-regulate a part of county code that required inspections of wastewater systems be done by a county employee. Starting Wednesday, the inspections will be optional when homes are bought and sold in the unincorporated part of the county.

Commissioner Richard Ranzau, citing anecdotes like those of the McDaniels, proposed the de-regulation. Ranzau said he has heard multiple complaints about inspections being burdensome or requiring home buyers and sellers to make expensive additions to stay compliant.

They just feel like they’ve been victimized by their government at times and forced to do things that are unreasonable.

Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau

“They just feel like they’ve been victimized by their government at times and forced to do things that are unreasonable,” Ranzau said.

Chairman Jim Howell and Commissioner Karl Peterjohn said they were confident the private sector could handle the inspections if people still want assurances their new water systems are functional.

But Realtors and two other commissioners argued inspections should be performed by county employees to prevent water pollution problems for new homeowners and their neighbors.

The health and safety of the general public may be compromised with the repeal.

Realtor Sue Wenger

“The health and safety of the general public may be compromised with the repeal,” said Sue Wenger, a Realtor. “County-mandated inspections do help in educating the public about potential health and safety issues when dealing with private water wells, failing sewer systems and alternative waste systems.”

The vote during the commission meeting reflected previous county debates over government regulation, protecting public health and the extent to which the private sector should take over traditional county functions.

What changed

Since 2006, buyers and sellers of homes in the unincorporated parts of Sedgwick County have been required to set up an inspection of their wastewater systems and water wells during home sales.

Four county employees in the Metropolitan Area Building and Construction Department performed the inspections. Assistant County Manager Tom Stolz said they average about 500 inspections a year.

About 40 percent of inspections found some sort of problem with the water systems. That can range from weed growth in a lagoon to complete system failure, which can result in sewage surfacing in a yard.

But commissioners voted last week for the county to stop performing the inspections after Dec. 31.

Starting Wednesday, home buyers and sellers can choose not to get the inspections done or to have them done by a private inspector.

Stolz said there are 43 wastewater installers, six septic system pumpers and 15 water well installers in the county qualified to perform the inspections.

“Any of these providers are capable of inspecting systems,” Stolz said.

Stolz said home inspectors in the private sector could also be trained.

Ranzau said the change will not eliminate the county’s ability to do inspections of water systems.

“We’ll still do inspections when they’re installed, repaired, modified – things like that,” Ranzau said. “It just eliminates the requirement when it (a home) is sold.”

‘Health and wellness’ concerns

The county’s Wastewater Advisory Board and the Realtors of South-Central Kansas board opposed the de-regulation.

“Repealing this inspection code and making health and safety a negotiable item for the public does not seem like a good answer,” said Wenger.

Wenger said inspections also protect neighboring property owners from water contamination by something like a seeping lagoon or septic tank.

“Contamination does not simply stay on that one property,” Wenger said. “Radon and wood-destroying insects … are normally single-property issues. (But) groundwater spreads a long way.”

Realtors argued inspections have helped prevent people moving into homes and being surprised by failing water systems.

It’s about the health and wellness in our community. … There is a reason we put this in place to begin with. It wasn’t because it was just pulled out of the air.

Realtor Stephanie McCurdy

“It’s about the health and wellness in our community,” said Realtor Stephanie McCurdy.

“There is a reason we put this in place to begin with. It wasn’t because it was just pulled out of the air.”

Tim Holt said real estate agents typically oppose more government intervention but that it is necessary in this case.

“The biggest hammer we have is saying it’s a government regulation and it’s required for health and safety,” Holt said. “That eliminates a lot of our arguments that we would have with our buyers or sellers because they’re looking for ways to cut their costs.”

‘Very strict’

Howell, the commission chairman, called the inspections a “very strict part of our code.”

I’m sympathetic to the buyers and the sellers wanting to have more ability to make decisions about what’s best for them.

Sedgwick County Chairman Jim Howell

“I’m sympathetic to the buyers and the sellers wanting to have more ability to make decisions about what’s best for them,” Howell said.

Ranzau said that wastewater inspections can be effectively handled by the private sector, like home inspections.

“The buyer and seller negotiate what’s going to happen,” Ranzau said. “And I fully expect that same process to happen here.”

Commissioners Dave Unruh and Tim Norton, the longest-tenured commissioners on the board, said they have not heard from residents that the inspections were burdensome.

“I guess a lot of my constituents or citizens don’t want to call me,” Unruh said. “I have not had any contact about this.”

Norton and Unruh voted against de-regulation, echoing many of the Realtors’ concerns about maintaining public health standards.

“I would just as soon have health and safety practices embedded in a code to be sure it’s standard for everyone,” Norton said.

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar

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