Dunes City Must Maintain Septic Ordinance to Protect Drinking Water

Woahink Lake Sunrise.

The residents of Dunes City, just south of Florence, mostly live around Siltcoos and Woahink Lakes. All residents are on septic systems, as Dunes City has no sewer. Now, these same residents get their drinking water primarily from the two lakes and their tributaries. Some have private water rights or groundwater wells, but a majority use Dunes City’s water right on Woahink Lake. In addition, Woahink Lake provides the drinking water for nearby Honeyman State Park, which receives more than 1.5 million visitors annually. Thus, the water quality of Woahink Lake is of supreme importance to literally millions of people. The lakes, rivers and groundwater in this area are hydrologically connected in the manner usual to dunal ecosystems. It is common sense that the City should pass, and enforce, a fairly strict septic maintenance ordinance.
In 2010, the Dunes City City Council did exactly that. The septic ordinance required every septic system to pass an initial inspection, which included mandatory pumping (Dunes City Code sec. 157.060). Only by pumping can the inspector see if there are cracks or potential hidden failures in the septic tank. Subsequent inspections were required at least every five years, and Dunes City had to keep records of the inspection results (Dunes City Code sec. 157.050). This ordinance fulfilled the tersely and clearly worded language of the City’s Comprehensive Plan, which states in Policy E6: “The City shall adopt a program to improve maintenance of septic systems for the benefit of all residents.”

However, new members of City Council consistently opposed these Ordinance 203 requirements. In November 2011, the City Council repealed Ordinance 203, and replaced it with an ordinance requiring only “septic education. ” Oregon Coast Alliance and Woahink Lake Association appealed the new ordinance up to the Land Use Board of Appeals, arguing that Dunes City could not repeal Ordinance 203 and leave the City without any septic ordinance for up to a year. LUBA agreed, in an opinion handed down in June 2012. The court pointed out that because of Dunes City’s Comprehensive Plan, the City must have a septic ordinance in place and, furthermore, any such ordinance must show that it improves water quality.

LUBA reinstated Ordinance 203, but still Dunes resisted implementing it. In November 2012, City Council proposed to send the septic ordinance out for a popular vote of residents, but backed off under pressure. Then in April 2013, the City Council decided not to impose fines or liens against a residence, nor to send threatening letters, if the owners are not complying with the septic ordinance. Council preferred to approach such situations by “talking through issues with property owners, which would be more successful then sending threatening letters.” (Dunes City Council Minutes, April 11, 2013).

In 2016 the City finally passed Ordinance 228, which created a less comprehensive septic ordinance with no mandatory septic pumping prior to the initial inspection. This is a key requirement, because inspection without pumping beforehand makes an accurate inspection essentially impossible. However, many Dunes City residents opposed it. Ordinance 228 also removes the requirement to have septics inspected every five years, replacing it with recommendations by a “qualified inspector” based on septic maintenance tables. The new ordinance eliminates City enforcement or responsibilities save record-keeping and notice-sending. However, Ordinance 228 must be administered in conformance with Department of Environmental Quality mandatory requirements, including the use of DEQ-credentialed inspectors.

ORCA hopes that, with an ordinance tailored to Dunes City homeowners’ concerns, City Council will finally begin to act responsibly in the matter of septic inspection and regulation, for the benefit of Woahink Lake on which all depend. The Comprehensive Plan requires this also. Many residents, and ORCA, are watching the outcome.

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