Joseph Broten, 33, is a pharmacist and first-time homeowner in Haywood County, originally from Minnesota. Two years ago, he purchased a home on Skyview Drive — just off Allens Creek Road on the south side of Waynesville.
“I was a clueless homebuyer and it was a foreclosure. I got a good deal on it, but I still wouldn’t have bought it if I knew this problem was here,” Broten said.
The problem he’s referring to is his septic system, which is so inundated with groundwater that it doesn’t always operate correctly.
“Right away when we bought it, the flush toilet wouldn’t work,” he said. “So I knew that there was something wrong with it, because when we bought the house they told us the septic had been pumped. The bank had come out and emptied it and said we didn’t need to do it again for three years. But right when we moved in, it didn’t work — it didn’t flush.”
A big stink
Broten began to notice that his problem seemed to worsen during damp spells, when excess water underground — supplemented by rainfall or snowmelt — penetrated his septic system, eliminating the pressure differential required to draw wastewater from the house out into the percolation field and forcing him and his family to seek alternative measures.
When it rains, Broten said, they try not to flush the toilet for a few days. He’ll instead take his children to Walmart, or to the public restroom at Allens Creek Park just down the road.
“I was going to take a crap in my kid’s little kiddie potty,” he said, “because I was like, ‘I’m not leaving the house every time I have to go.’”
The Broten family isn’t the only one in the neighborhood to experience such issues, as the water table lies close to the surface in the area and has or will affect almost everyone.
One homeowner on Valley View Circle who declined to be identified on the record said that the home she had owned since 1992 began to experience puddling in the front lawn several years ago. The homeowner added more subsurface percolation lines — perforated tubes that allow wastewater to seep out and enter the soil — twice over that time.
But now there’s no more room for the homeowner to run additional lines, so she has to be careful with household water usage, especially when visitors and guests place additional demands on their already overburdened system.
“This is a nice neighborhood at a make-or-break moment,” the homeowner said, claiming that the only solution for the problem is to install a “miniature version of a water treatment plant.”
What she’s referring to is a so-called “direct charge” system that treats waste on site, allowing for it to be pumped directly into local creeks and streams.
“One thing I knew from what I was reading is that if it was bad, it was like $5,000 in repairs,” Broten said. “But once you realize that a normal system won’t work here, it’s $25,000. After I got people here looking at what needed to be done, that’s the price they gave me.”
That unanticipated price tag caught Broten — who bought his house for $44,000 — completely by surprise.
And if one of those expensive systems fails, it could raise a big stink in Allen Creek and its tributaries, which flow not far from the town’s 10-billion gallon, 50-acre, 17,000-customer water reservoir.
Passing the time
During the Aug. 23 Waynesville Town Board meeting outgoing interim Town Manager Mike Morgan admitted the town was a little behind in addressing the problem.
Luckily for the town and for Allen Creek-area homeowners, Waynesville Director of Public Services David Foster was there to explain the issue in depth and to propose a solution.
“Not only are septics failing, but some are floating because the water table is so high,” Foster said in an interview Aug. 29.
He added that one option available was for homeowners to spend their own money on the more expensive treatment systems.
“When you’re talking a large, multi-million-dollar home, that’s certainly an option,” he said. “But when you’re talking about an average sized, $100,000 home, it’s not a viable option to put in a $20,000 treatment system.”
Another option, he said, is for homeowners to increase the “repair area” of their existing systems.
The repair area — an additional plot of land under which supplementary perforated lines are installed so that septic systems can disburse additional input — must today be equivalent in size to the area required for the septic tank and main septic system itself.
But when the 1950s- and 1960s-era homes off Allen Creek were built this wasn’t a requirement, thus most small lots like the one on Valley View Circle can’t even consider such measures.
Indeed, the homeowner on Valley View Circle claims that when the Haywood County Health Department visited the site, they said that today homes would never have been built in such density, if at all.
The most drastic option that Foster says nobody wants is to stand by and do nothing; as the systems fail and the houses become uninhabitable, they’ll ultimately face condemnation.
“We want to be the guys riding in with the white hats,” he said. “The real crux of the issue with folks’ homes is they’re talking about condemning properties and moving people off properties that their families have owned for generations.”
The only realistic alternative for residents is to ask the town to connect them to the municipal sewer and water system — a process that will take time, money and political leadership to complete.
Waynesville’s Town Code of Ordinances states in Sec. 58-277 (see Shining Rock seeks annexation, page 9) that “a written petition for voluntary annexation… shall accompany all written requests for connections to or extensions of sewer lines outside the corporate limits of the town.”
What this means is that residents of the area, which lies outside corporate limits but within the town’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, would have to pay a higher property tax rate than they currently pay, potentially pitting residents who don’t have septic problems — or don’t yet have septic problems — against those who already do.
Waynesville taxpayers would also be on the hook for a total project cost of up to $5 million, depending on how extensive an effort the town decides to undertake.
The scope of that effort is what Foster intended to clarify before the board.
“I basically got a green light for me to go ahead and engage a contractor to do a study which will come back and say where the impacted properties are, the potential costs, and some potential obstacles,” he said.
He didn’t ask for funding for the study, instead saying he hoped his department could absorb the $60,000 to $80,000 cost. With $23 million in various Clean Water Management Trust Fund grants becoming available in mid-2017, he wants the study to be completed by this coming June.
Foster will then take that study back to the board and inform aldermen about possible grants that might be used to offset the cost.
Foster said that the project’s payback time — 200 years at minimum — wasn’t a viable option to present to the board and that grants would be critical in financing the improvements, which would likely take a decade.
But can Joseph Broten and his family and the 70-something residents near Allens Creek Road hold out until then?
“I bought my house with the idea that I was going to fix it up, live here for five years, and sell it for some profit,” he said. “But now all the work that I’m putting in to it isn’t making it more valuable. I can’t sell this house legitimately for what I need to make on it. Eventually, I’ll have to sell it at a lower price, minus $25,000.”
Much ado about flushing
Although most people don’t think of modern plumbing when they think of significant advances in human civilization, its implementation in major cities during the late 1800s revolutionized life for billions, granting no small measure of protection against deadly infectious diseases like cholera, which used to kill millions.
Prior to its introduction, people would defecate out in the open, in outhouses or indoors in large pots which were then dumped indiscriminately into open sewers or streets.