By Emma Woodham, Staff Writer for Island Eye News
Sewer and septic are two words that have been the subject of many discussions around Isle of Palms for the last few weeks, particularly related to some proposed changes City Council is considering. According to Mayor Jimmy Carroll, the proposed amendments to City Ordinance 2017-09 have four different components. First, all new construction or substantial improvements be connected to the public sewer when the sewer line is within one hundredand-fifty feet of the property. Second, the amendments would reduce the floor-to-area ratio, meaning any new construction would have narrower limits regarding the size of the structure being built in proportion to the size of the lot it is built on. Lot coverage regulations would go from 40% to 30%. Third, any home that sells and has a sewer line in front of it will be required to tie into the sewer system and finally, no new subdivisions will be approved using septic or sewer system.
Questions about the proposed changes have surrounded the issue, and more than a few island residents voiced their concerns at the most recent City Council meeting, where the second reading of the proposed amendments took place. A week later, at the Public Forum, the same questions were primary topics discussed. Mayor Carroll says that he and the council heard the voices of the residents and are taking them into consideration.
Some areas of the island are particularly prone to flooding, not only during hurricanes, but also as a result of heavy rain showers. The biggest issue with septic systems is the risk that bacteria can escape into the ground and make its way into the water around the island in the event of flooding, Councilmember Ted Kinghorn explained. “This is our ticking time bomb on the island and is likely to have more negative long-term effect than a storm or natural disaster,” Kinghorn said. Approximately 33% of the homes on the island are currently on sewer. Over the last 15 years, homes have been able to tie into the sewer system using grinder pumps. Grinder pump systems are comprised of a pump, a tank, and an alarm. A home’s wastewater is ground into a slurry and then pumped through a relatively small line into the central sewer system, according to an assessment of extending public sewer lines conducted by the Planning Commission in August of 2017.
Approximately 150 properties have been tied into the sewer system with grinder pumps, the report noted. While the Planning Commission was conducting its assessment, it was determined that it would be impossible to move forward with extending the sewer lines on a larger scale without cooperation and leadership from City Council and other agencies. This report is what led to the four proposed amendment changes that soon caught the notice of island residents. Some residents have heard mention of a large figure—$52 million—and according to the same assessment from the Planning Commission, this figure relates to the cost of fully converting every home on the entire island to sewer. According to Councilmember Kinghorn, this number may not be completely accurate any longer. Mayor Carroll noted that this figure does not include the cost of each individual home tying into the sewer lines. While he would like to see the island completely converted to sewer, he admits that the issue is cost prohibitive. “Yes, we would all love to be completely on sewer, but economically wise, we can’t afford it,” Mayor Carroll said. Despite the general outcry from residents about the suggested changes, Councilmember Kinghorn still feels that gradually switching all homes from septic to sewer is the best thing for the island. “These recommendations are important as recommended by our Planning Commission, which is made up of citizen volunteers, the Isle of Palms Water and Sewer Commission and unanimously endorsed in the first reading by council. Furthermore, the goal, as unanimously reported out of last year’s Public Works Commission, should be for an island-wide full implementation of sewers,” Kinghorn said. Mayor Carroll understands that the residents are apprehensive about the changes, which is why he feels that the issue will likely be put on hold until the public can be better informed. He simply feels that there are currently too many unknowns. “I am but one of nine votes on council. From what I heard from both the public and from individual council members, I believe you will not see any changes at this time until we better understand the implications of each proponent,” Carroll said. Residents are encouraged to attend the upcoming council meetings so that they may be aware of further discussion regarding these suggested changes.