In an otherwise urban setting, septic tanks aren’t ideal. They can leak or overflow and pollute nearby waterways or backyards, creating public health hazards and other problems.
So it’s important for residents like those in the Snowden community in an unincorporated area inside Mount Pleasant, many of whom still rely on septic tanks, to be able to access nearby sewer lines without overly burdensome strings attached, for example.
But a Charleston County ordinance ostensibly aimed at addressing that and similar situations goes much too far, and would have serious unintended consequences that would be environmentally destructive and financially burdensome.
The new rules, which won initial approval April 23 in a 7-2 County Council vote, would require that homes adjacent to properties with sewer service connect into those existing lines and would prevent water utilities from mandating annexation as a prerequisite.
The term “adjacent” is so broad, however, that it could eventually require that sewer service be extended across the entirety of the county, including well outside of the Urban Growth Boundary.
In the most rural parts of Charleston County, sewer service doesn’t make financial sense. The cost to run pipes and pumps so far outside the region’s urban core would greatly exceed the ability of rural communities to pay for that infrastructure.
This would create a tremendous financial strain on utility companies — and thus on their customers throughout their service area — and would encourage more intensive development in previously undevelopable areas.
In the past, extending sewer service to otherwise rural areas has almost always been a prelude to heavier development, and it’s difficult to imagine that things would be different now, especially given the region’s rapid growth.
Needless to say, the negative environmental and quality of life impacts of building sprawling suburbs in previously untouched parts of the county would far exceed any positives related to reducing dependence on septic systems.
The ordinance would also further complicate already politically fraught rules on annexation and exacerbate tensions between Charleston County and municipalities when their guidelines on growth and development don’t always align.
Mount Pleasant in particular has used sewer service as a way to encourage unincorporated areas to join the town — and play by its stringent development rules. Eliminating that leverage would undermine the town’s efforts to get a better handle on growth.
Mandating sewer connections would also place a significant financial burden on affected homeowners, many of whom are not in a position to shell out thousands of dollars in construction and impact fees.
The county is proposing to create a fund that would help low-income homeowners afford those costs — which can run as high as $10,000 for a single residence — but there aren’t any specifics so far as to who would qualify or how much assistance would be available.
Troublingly, local water utilities and environmental advocacy groups did not appear to have been consulted before the recent initial County Council vote, and were struggling to interpret how this ordinance would affect them.
That is a significant concern when considering such a far-reaching change in county policy.
As it stands, there are too many unanswered questions, nebulous requirements and other potential pitfalls in this ordinance for Charleston County to proceed without allowing for broad public input and a more thorough consideration of the possible consequences.