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Septic situation sparks concern

by DANIEL RADFORD
Staff Writer | November 19, 2022 1:00 AM

Editor's note: This story has been edited to correct errors of fact surrounding Jacob Marble and Josh Pilch and their involvement with alleged current issues regarding the Mountain Homestead subdivision. The Daily Bee apologizes for this error. Their comments have been included below for a more balanced and accurate story.

SANDPOINT — For the last year, one homeowner has been working overtime to remedy what he claims are serious septic concerns in his neighborhood.

The Mountain Homestead subdivision in the northern Sandpoint area has been the site of contamination concerns, according to Mike Williams, who moved to the community from Coeur d’Alene the summer of 2021.

Williams contends septic conditions in the development are not what they should be. Among his concerns, the homeowner said, are septic tanks which are under several feet of water and a shared drain field which is flooded for months at a time.

His drinking water has tested positive for E. Coli, Williams said, adding he has had to spend thousands on filtration alone as he works to fix the septic situation.

However, others in the development say Williams' claims of the drain field being flooded for long periods of time are unfounded. The drain field sits at a higher elevation than surrounding land — causing excess water to drain into the nearby wetlands.

After it was discovered that pumps for the drain field had not been turned on, the problem was discovered and quickly fixed, " Jacob Marble of J&J Development, which sold the Mountain Homestead properties to Twin W Properties in July 2020.

"Mike has repeatedly claimed that the drain field is failing, or is about to fail," Marble said. "Panhandle Health District has confirmed that it is not failing."

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wetland Inventory, about half of the Mountain Homestead subdivision sits on a federally recognized wetland. The wetland is classified as “emergent” and “persistent” with “seasonal flooding.”

Williams said he is concerned there is fecal matter in the drinking water, which he said regularly comes out of the faucet a murky brown color. He provided several photos of the water and what appears to be a bacterial rash.

E. Coli bacterial not uncommon in well waters, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Neighbors said they were advised of this and installed water filtration systems in their home as a preventative measure.

Marble said it is more likely that Williams might be seeing silt from the bottom of the well, which extends through 200 feet of clay. He noted that the well sits 1,500 feet southwest of the drain field — well beyond the 200 feet or so required by the Department of Environmental Quality.

The issues allegedly affect eight homes, according to Williams. However, none reported any problems similar to what Williams reported.

In his case, Williams said he applied for a new permit with the Panhandle Health District. In the permit he received, Panhandle Health said no prior permit was issued for the septic installation currently on his parcel.

Marble said J&J Development did not apply for a septic tank permit for any home on Lightfoot Drive because they did not install any septic tank on the road. However, J&J Development provided a septic line to each lot, allowing for each lot to install the correct tank for their needs since the size of the tank is dependent on the size of the home built.

The septic line flows directly to a septic drain field that was designed by JA Sewell, installed by Pilch Custom Homes, which is certified to install complex septic systems; and permitted and inspected by Panhandle Health Department, Marble said.

Williams also applied for a permit for a neighboring lot to assist the current property owners. According to the new permit, which was issued by Environmental Health Specialist Timothy French from the PHD, “an application was filed for this parcel and a permit was issued, but the installation was not done properly nor was a final inspection requested,” the new permit stated.

While a septic tank permit was issued for the parcel and a site selected, Marble said a PHD inspector determined it needed to be moved. While he and Pilch have photos from the second inspection, for some reason the final inspection wasn't recorded.

"We don't know what happened, I'm sure it was an honest mistake," he added.

PHD records show septic tank applications for three of the lots — numbers 2, 3, and 4 of Mountain Homestead 2 on Leatherman Drive — and one for a septic drain field. Of the four applications, all by Pilch Custom Homes, all four were granted permits with three of the four recording a final inspection.

Of the fourth home, PHD asked for the tank to be moved a second time, Marble said. However, weather turned cold and wet before the job could be completed. That work is scheduled for the spring and the family remains in the home, he added.

Williams said identical verbiage appears on nearly all of the new permit applications filed by property owners attempting to get their septic up to code. Either a permit was not followed, or a permit was not even issued, he added.

The homeowners face costs of thousands of dollars to fix the problem, Williams said. In his case, Williams said he received an estimate from Amped Pump and Controls in Ponderay totaling more than $22,000 for unspecified work for his system in order to meet PHD specifications.

According to IDAPA 58.01.03 “Responsibilities” part a, homeowners are responsible for assuring their septic is safe and legal.

However, according to part b, the homeowners are not the only ones on the hook. The code states that ‘who for compensation shall design, construct, abandon, or provide any system or part thereof, is jointly and individually responsible for compliance.”

French said in Williams’ permit, the septic tank, which was not permitted to be installed, had been “installed too deep to meet setback requirements to groundwater” and needs to be lifted. Williams believes the depth of the septic tanks installed on his property are responsible for the flooding of the community drain field.

“It’s a [bleep] show,” he said.

However, Marble said the only role J&J Development had was in connection to the drain field. That was designed by JA Sewell and built by Pilch Custom Homes. Both DEQ and PHD indicate no issues with the drain field.

He does not know who designed or built Williams' septic tank, but noted he, Pilch and J&J Development were not involved.

A company contracted for the septic, Toner’s Excavating, based out of Chattaroy, Wash., issued a letter on Sept. 13, 2022, that said they had been contracted by Northstar Builders (which is owned by John Williams, the owner of Twin W Properties, unrelated to Michael Williams) to install the septic.

In the letter, Nathan Dronenburg, who oversaw the company’s involvement with Northstar, is listed as applying for permits for some of the properties. However, he said that in the last conversation with PHD that he remembers he was told “the drain field had been covered without proper inspection.” Citing this and the “great deal of confusion and miscommunication” between the builders and the developers, Toner’s Excavating “never installed tanks on any lots.”

The Mountain Homestead properties were sold by J&J Development to Twin W Properties in July of 2020, according to erecorder.bonnercountyid.gov. Williams acquired the home, on lot 2 of Mountain Homestead I, about a year later.

J&J Development LLC signed off on both of the shared septic and water system easement agreements, the first from December 2019 and the second from September 2020.

Marble said the 2019 document declares a shared septic system. After they sold the eight lots, it became apparent that a shared water system also would be helpful. When completed, all of the lot owners had a chance to inspect and sign or reject the system.

All lot owners signed the new easement, Marble said.

According to sosbiz.idaho.org, J&J Development had only two members, Jacob Marble and Josh Pilch, until October 2020, when Pilch's name was not listed on the entity’s annual report. Both signed the easement agreements. Marble signed all of the “will serve” letters for the septic systems for the lots in the name of J&J Development.

"These are simply the documents that establish the homeowner's association for the water and septic association, and outline the rights and responsibilities," Marble said. "That association exists today, and is led by the homeowners, which was our intent. Without these agreements, the neighbors would have to manage these shared resources 'on a handshake,' which often ends poorly down the road."

Marble said the state only requires one name be included on an entity's annual report and the two continue as partners as J&J Development LLC.

Because a drain field's capacity is measured in gallons, the shared field's capacity has to be split among all the homes. In the case of Mountain Homestead, the facility has a 2,400-gallon capacity — enough to absorb the wastewater of eight four-bedroom homes.

Capacity of a shared system is tracked in two places after installation — a septic system manager and Panhandle Health.

"When a homeowner wants to connect their home to the shared septic system, they ask the septic system manager to write a 'will serve letter,'" Marble said. "This letter is the septic manager's opportunity to limit overuse of the system. If a three-bedroom home is planned, then the applicant requests, and the manager provides, a 'will serve letter' for 250 gallons per day. This letter is delivered to PHD as part of the application for a septic tank. PHD confirms capacity for the additional usage, and issues the corresponding permit."

Jacob Marble is the chair of the Bonner County Zoning Commission and regularly rules on septic issues, including the conditional use permit for a large soil absorption system for M3’s planned gated community in Camp Bay.

Josh Pilch is a member of the Planning Commission, which is currently rewriting the Bonner County Comprehensive Land Use Plan. Pilch volunteered to rewrite the comp plan’s chapters for housing and for public services, facilities, and utilities.

However, Marble and Pilch said county ethics rules are clear. If any decision comes up that poses a conflict of interest, they recuse themselves and don't vote.

In a video recorded by Williams, Marble is heard talking about wells on the properties. “We had the water tested and this one failed and that one passed and so we had this one treated and [then] it passed,” Marble told Williams on Jan. 24, 2022.

Williams replied “well yeah if you treat it and it passes, that doesn’t really count in my book.” Williams told the Bee that the well on his property failed before he bought the home, and that this was not disclosed before the purchase.

A well pump contractor advised Marble that a new well is often contaminated because surface soil gets send to the bottom during drilling. The solution is to "shock" the well casing with a chemical similar to chlorine.

After that process and following, one of the lot owners who had been appointed manager of the water and septic associated collected a new sample. It came back clean, Marble said.

According to Idaho Code 55-2508, a home seller is required to disclose the type of septic system as well as any problems it may have before the sale.

“I’m okay with Bonner County not having that many rules, but you need to follow the few ones we do have,” Williams said.

In this case, Marble said J&J never sold a lot to Williams. Instead, they sold five acres of land to Northstar Construction, which subsequently sold a home to Williams.

In a test conducted by Kellog-based SVL Analytical on Aug. 17, 2021 for a shared well that serves Williams' property, the results returned a “present” finding for coliform bacteria, including E. Coli, which is a regular occurrence in unsanitary conditions.

Williams and some of his neighbors have gotten attorneys involved. “I just want them … fix this stuff. We aren’t money-hungry, we just want to make sure we aren’t drinking our neighbors’ poo, you know?”

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