Fairlee board votes to add town-level septic regulation

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-20-2023 9:17 AM

FAIRLEE — The Fairlee Selectboard has adopted changes to permitting in an attempt to place septic regulations — about which the state has historically been lax — under the town’s control, a move that goes hand in hand with a larger effort to preserve water quality in Lake Morey.

When a property owner seeks a building permit, the Town of Fairlee requires a professional inspection of the property’s septic system to ensure it complies with the State of Vermont’s requirements. 

But in an amendment meant to incentivize larger septic setbacks, the town’s restrictions on increasing a building footprint would not apply if a property owner places a septic system 150 feet or more from the lake’s high-water mark, and “any previous system shall be properly decommissioned,” the change, adopted this week, reads.

The move aims to give the town more of a say on a subject where board members don’t think current state regulation goes far enough.

“If they’re rebuilding or replacing, we want to know if the septic is up to current standard,” Selectboard member Peter Berger said.

“Part of the driving force behind this is knowing we don’t have a full inventory of systems on (Lake Morey), and a fair number of the nonconforming camps in settled areas on the lake predate when the state took over the responsibilities for all wastewater systems,” he added in an email.

The state doesn’t require septic setbacks of a specific distance, Berger said.

“What we’ve found is that even on changes of structure, conditional use, the state was really just going, ‘Okey doke,’ ” Berger said. “In other words, there was no review. This is an intervention by the town to try to control something that the state didn’t include in the Vermont Shoreland Protection Act passed in 2015.”

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The septic surveillance is in step with gradually materializing efforts from the town to address the cyanobacteria issue that plagued Lake Morey last summer.

“Both of these efforts are concerned with water quality, and both are trying to protect a significant resource for the town,” Berger said of Lake Morey.

Some cyanobacteria produce toxins that can cause health effects ranging from rashes and nausea to liver, respiratory and neurological conditions — even from low-level exposure.

Last summer, the lake suffered a bacterial bloom that town officials called “the worst in recent memory.” The town closed its public beaches for weekslong stints and advised against swimming.

Cyanobacteria thrives in warmer water, which causes it to reproduce faster and inhibits lake turnover. The shorter winters and warmer summers brought by climate change only fuel harmful algal blooms, according to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

Cyanobacteria is naturally found in water bodies, but blooms can get out of control when excess nutrients are present.

Numerous studies have linked nitrogen leakage from faulty septic tanks to algal bloom intensity.

In the past, the town has taken measures to prevent cyanobacteria blooms, including a moratorium on building along the lakeshore. But the severity of last summer’s bloom motivated the town to consider more aggressive solutions.

A feasibility stud y commissioned last year found that an alum treatment, aiming to remove excess nutrients that fuel blooms, applied to the lake 40 years ago had been reduced to a 20% efficacy rate. The recommendation was to reapply.

In order to pursue treatment, the town is awaiting state permitting for the addition of chemicals to the lake (alum is considered a pesticide).

The treatment will cost roughly $800,000, Berger said, and begin in late spring of 2024.

“Our focus is to make sure that there’s a clear understanding of what the blooms mean — when it’s safe to be in the water, be able to provide test kits and make sure that people are safe” Berger said.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

 CORRECTION: If a property owner is seeking a building permit, the Town of Fairlee would require a professional inspection of the property’s septic system to ensure it complies with the State of Vermont’s requirements. The town’s restrictions on increasing a building footprint would not apply if a property owner places a septic system 150 feet or more from the lake’s edge. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated how the septic system setback would be applied.

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