An exposed septic tank on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in Rodanthe. Photo: National Park Service

NC - Commission approves septic rule changes, flood disclosure

MANTEO – Advocates say would-be homebuyers and current oceanfront property owners in North Carolina have long needed clearer rules and updated information as climate change increases the risks of damage and flooding.

Two unrelated, but long-sought actions taken last week by the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission seek to clarify two persistent issues: septic systems on the public beach, and residential flooding.

With two dozen or so septic tanks and their various parts scattered on the beaches of Cape Hatteras National Seashore last year after the collapse of three large beach houses into the ocean in the village of Rodanthe, gaps in regulations and enforcement became glaringly self-evident. Concerns also were renewed that some owners of the damaged or destroyed properties seemed to be uninformed about the risk of beach erosion, storm tides and flood damage.

The commission, which met Thursday in Manteo, voted unanimously to approve an amended septic rule. Although the changes did not address all the complexities of ocean shoreline septic issues, they specify what is allowed in repairing or moving septic systems on an eroding ocean beach, and are the first update since the recent spate of beach house collapses.

According to the updated rule, if a septic system on the oceanfront is battered by storm tide, repairs can be done in place without a permit. Otherwise, the replacement or relocation of any septic system seaward of the vegetation line needs a permit.

“The idea here is we’re trying to get them off the public beach,” Division of Coastal Management Deputy Director Mike Lopazanski said during a presentation at the Coastal Resources Advisory Committee meeting Wednesday in Manteo. The panel advises the commission on local government matters.

Ocean beaches from the foreshore to the low-tide line are in the public trust in North Carolina. That part of the beach within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is also public land, National Park Service property. The relevant state statute defines the public trust beach as the wet sand area that “is subject to regular flooding by tides and the dry sand area of the beach that is subject to occasional flooding by tides, including wind tides other than those resulting from a hurricane or tropical storm.”

Lopazanski said the amended septic rule also directs the Division of Coastal Management to make allowances for areas impacted by hurricanes and tropical storms, where septic systems may be damaged by overwash or burial of the vegetation line. The systems, which the general statute defines as the septic tank, the pump tank and the ground absorption field, can still be repaired or relocated to restore their function and avoid impacts to the public trust beach, he said.

In decisions to repair or relocate, components are considered separate structures. If they cannot be repaired in place, they would be subject to erosion-rate-based setbacks that apply to other oceanfront structures. Septic systems will not be permitted separately when an owner seeks a permit to build in a coastal zone.

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