(Updated October 23, 2014 to incorporate discussion of the state’s latest local water quality report and other news since the original date of publication on May 24, 2014. In July 2016 a joint agency improvement plan endorsed by the county freeholders and local township under the supervision of the township engineer as the lead engineer was embraced by most local residents.)
A handful of neighbors have called or visited this past week to ask me about what I know about the health department’s recent notices mailed to residents of Money Island and Gandy’s Beach. The Department of Health held a public meeting on this issue but some residents, including me, were unable to attend because the meeting overlapped another important local event in Millville. Here is what I know about the subject:
1. Downe Township Committee sent a letter about this more than a month ago but apparently some affected homeowners did not receive it. Affected residents should send a copy of the notice to the township in order to be included in the response.
2. Downe Township solicitor John Carr sent the letter of inquiry to the health department on behalf of all the affected residents who wish to enjoin in this collective response in the last week of May. The letter includes a list of the affected residences. The list does not seem to directly correlate to the list of properties in the inspection report (#4 below) and so I don’t know how the list was formulated. (As far as I know at this date of October 23, 2014, attorney Carr has not responded to those who presented letters and authorizations of representation. I presume this is because the County has not made a substantive response to his inquiry).
3. Mayor Bob Campbell and Township Committee members have stated their belief that the Cumberland County Board of Health enforcement action is either inappropriate at this time or not legal as currently proposed. At some point the township was considering setting up its own health department to deal with the issues in a more crafted approach but there is no indication that this local initiative is in any way connected to the county’s current enforcement actions. I do not have any specific knowledge that would enable an opinion on the legal aspects of any of these topics.
4. The inspection report that is apparently the evidence underlying the notices seems to contain multiple factual errors. I suspect that perhaps the inspectors misidentified the property block and lot numbers because many properties are not identified by house numbers. In any event, looks like the report does not match the facts in at least a handful of Money Island properties. I previously published but then removed the copy of the inspection report from the moneyislandnews.com web site to avoid propagating the errors but will make it available to individual property owners on request. The inspection report does not directly correlate to the list of property owners who received violation notices in May 2014.
5. Some of the owners of the affected residences simply cannot afford property upgrades at this time. The residents of Money Island and Gandy’s Beach that I speak with most often have not even started the bulk of Sandy repairs yet, They are still looking for a source of funding and permits to rebuild. I conclude that without a source of funding, property repairs simply won’t happen regardless of whether to fix the leaking roofs or upgrade septic or water systems.
6. My guess is that, like many other issues affecting us, the real solution is still years away.
7. With the trend of long-term depreciation in property values, it becomes increasingly difficult to draw private capital investment to the bay shore communities. Until and unless government shows some leadership and commitment to rebuild infrastructure here, nothing will change.
8. All of the elected officials (that I’ve heard) weighing in on the matter oppose additional enforcement action at this time. I am not aware of any elected official at any level of state government supporting the additional enforcement at this time.
9. At least one powerful nonprofit group supports the Health Department’s action and this outside threat should not be taken lightly. A counter-balancing influence was reflected in the October 2014 regional planning meeting hosted by the recovery Group and facilitated by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. In that meeting, public support for public water/sewer/gas for the inderserved communities was voted as among the participant’s highest priorities.
10. The Cumberland County Department of Health’s action appears to violate the spirit of the Cumberland Delaware Bayshore Recovery Plan and action steps recently adopted by the county freeholders. This seems odd because the Health Department was involved in the development of that plan and the County Commissioners unanimously approved it.
11. The immediate impact on us is that it may be impossible to get building permits or certificates of occupancy until this issue is resolved. I asked Mayor Campbell about this on Thursday. He is apparently aware of the potential problem ahead but had no immediate response. My guess is that affected homeowners will not be able to get some types of building permits and Certificate of Occupancy for an extended period of time. (As of October 23. 2014, the only post-Sandy rebuilt house is still unoccupied).
12. It seems likely that most septic systems – both here and in other rural ares – have not been maintained to a level recommended by EPA and required by state law. It seems likely that all of our older septic tanks fail one or more provisions of the state code. Yet there does not appear to be any indication that the level of non-compliance is any different from any other rural NJ community that still uses septic tanks. The cost of compliance could be significant, perhaps tens of thousands of dollars. Some systems might only need mild repair. Apparently few if any residents have a copy of their original septic installation permit and the health department does not have copies of the permits. Under these circumstances, we are at risk of having systems declared to be unpermitted. It is unclear whether government can force compliance with current standards on existing structures that were legal when built. There may be some controversy about whether existing structures were legal when built. I am not able to offer any comment on this issue or the question of selective enforcement of septic maintenance laws since this is a legal issue.
13. Two owners have disconnected their shared wells in response to the health department’s policy against the practice. Others who have paid for installation and upkeep of a well that is located on another person’s property are more likely to fight. (The Health Department clarified language that allows properties with related ownership to share a well. This is important because a majority of the properties at Money Island now have related ownership).
14. Last but most important, we do not have any indication of a problem with water quality, septic contamination or water pollution in our community. Our ground water, creek water and bay water is tested regularly and, with one exception, there have been no indications of a problem. (We note that the state’s water quality report issued for July 2014 is being used to downgrade the local oyster harvesting zone can not be linked to household contamination but rather indicates elevated summer bacteria levels in the bay without a comparison to bacteria levels from other non-residential zone waters. Additionally, the absence of phosphorous in the test results suggests a likelihood of a non-household source of the elevated bacteria levels).
In summary, for the foreseeable future we can expect to hear lots of talk, see lots of paperwork, experience heightened emotions, but not see any physical result on this issue. It is a familiar story.