Soil Science, Septic Permits, and How to Lose Your Shirt

The number one issue in buying mountain land today is septic approval, for without it, the land is virtually worthless. I’ve spoken to many people in the past few years who thought they had a great, appreciating investment but whose land is actually worthless because they either can’t get – or lost – septic approval for their property.

First, a mighty disclaimer: This is a moving target, because regulations keep evolving. I’m going to talk in general terms about the septic approval process, based on the county I am the most familiar with, Fannin County, Georgia. This information is believed to be correct as of the date it was written, and should give you a general idea of the importance of the issue, and some of the “nuts and bolts” of the septic approval process. But you should be aware that septic approval is a moving target, and it is done on a case-by-case basis. The regulations, and their interpretation by local officials, change frequently, and surveyors, real estate people, and attorneys are generally not informed when they do change. In each and every case, it would be extremely foolish accept anyone’s assurance that a piece of property is buildable without personally investigating the situation and speaking to the responsible officials to make sure that you understand the situation in detail.

Let me repeat that. YOU WOULD BE ABSOLUTELY CRAZY to buy a piece of mountain property without personally speaking directly to the responsible local officials and making sure you understand everything they have to say that bears on your potential purchase. If you are going to risk your hard-earned money, at today’s land prices, please do your due diligence and make sure you will receive a septic permit in the end.

Why do you need one? First, you can’t get a building permit without it. Second, you can’t get electricity without it. A request to the electric company to have a meter set triggers a request for a septic permit. In the “good old days” many septic systems were installed without permits, and tying electric service to septic permitting is the way in which compliance has been assured.

The process starts with a soil science test. A licensed soil classifier is hired, usually by the buyer. The current cost is usually between $300 – $350. The soil scientist takes your plat or survey out to the lot and drills core samples, marking the test holes with flags for the environmentalist’s reference. He then rates the soil as to type, which indicates the rate of absorption, or percolation rate. This is why the soil science test is often referred to as a “perk test.” He marks the location of his core samples on your plat, and provides notations as to type of soil and their suitability for a septic field.

Although this is a state function, it is handled differently in different counties. In Fannin County, the county environmentalist uses a chart that tells you, in effect, how many acres you need for a septic system with a given perk rate. This is the number one reason that lots get turned down for septic approval: Not enough land for the soil type. This is a moving target, because every year, it seems that the regulations require more land. At this point in the cycle, any lot with less than 1.4 acres is dubious for septic approval. There are some exceptions to this rule, and I’ll discuss them below.

The septic permit is “site specific.” You must mark the proposed location of your cabin for the environmentalist’s approval. You could get a septic permit on a lot, but not be allowed to put the house where you want to put it – say to enjoy the best view. This is one important reason to accompany the soil scientist when he does the soil work. A good soil scientist should have a good eye for this, and should be able to advise you on cabin placement.

With the original soil science test in hand, with the seal of the soil scientist affixed, you then visit Land Development, which is the county department in charge of issuing building permits. It is primarily concerned with things like setbacks, and the environmentalist is primarily concerned with septic approval. You apply for your building permit, which is currently $50, and the environmentalist goes out to your lot. You will be required to have a sign on the lot identifying it, and you will be required to mark the proposed footprint of the cabin. The environmentalist then tells you whether or not you can build there. She will also tell you not to build anything in the area that is designated as your replacement field, should your septic field ever fail. She then marks these things on your plat, and – if approved – this goes into your file. After the septic system is constructed, it must be inspected and signed-off on, this document then goes into the permanent file. It is, in fact, your septic permit.

Now. You can’t get a septic permit for a piece of land that you don’t own. Nor is a septic permit transferable. (It may be possible now to transfer a septic permit. Check with your county health department.) However, the environmental people will tell you whether they will issue a permit once you own it, and in certain cases will provide a letter certifying it.

Developers of subdivisions, if they follow the correct procedures, may obtain pre-approval for their lots. Again, you should not accept the assurance of anyone that this approval has been given. You must speak directly to the environmentalist and assure yourself that it is so.

There are certain exceptions to the lot size requirements. If the subdivision was officially recorded – and that means in the courthouse, signed by the county clerk – prior to 1987, the current lot size requirements may not apply. However, you must still have room for a septic field and replacement field, and these must be fifty feet from any running water and 100 feet from any well – not just your own. Be aware, however, that these “grandfathered” conditions may be very strictly interpreted. I was involved with a lot on the river that was ruled grandfathered if and only if community water could be obtained. Another outside water source, even if it was far from the property, would not do.

In certain cases, having access to city water or to a community water system reduces the number of acres required to build.

New regulations have recently come into play concerning the slope of the lot. More than a 30% slope will require either an alternative – and more expensive – septic system or site remediation to correct the slope. Bear in mind that while a hundred feet of drop over a hundred feet is a 45? angle – or grade – it is a 100% slope, which means that it does not take much slope to bring this requirement into play. The upshot is that you may not have enough land to install an alternative system – they require more land – and you may not want to pay for it. This is another reason why it is important to listen carefully, and personally, to what the environmentalist says. Yes, you might have a septic permit. But the required system might cost more than you want to spend.

When the lot is near running water, especially – but not exclusively – the Toccoa River, special regulations come into play. A site plan will be required, which is prepared by a surveyor, and costs $2, 000 or more. Lots not grandfathered will require at least two acres to be buildable on the river. If your site is in a flood plain, you will be required to have 4% slope.

Bear in mind that while your soil science doesn’t expire, your septic permit does. In Georgia, it’s good for one year. In Tennessee, three years. When it expires you must reapply – under whatever new regulations exist at that time. This means that it is extremely prudent, especially if you are near water, or on a steep slope, or on a lot that is marginally big enough, to get that septic system in the ground and have it inspected. Once that is done, they can’t take it away from you, except in exceptional instances. Given that the cost of a conventional septic system generally doesn’t exceed $5000, it is a very good precaution.

Bear in mind that you will need a survey or plat to get a septic permit.

Just because an existing cabin or lot has a septic system doesn’t mean it has a septic permit. Before electric was tied to septic, many cabins were built with unpermitted systems. It can be extremely difficult to locate a septic permit, because the exact date it was permitted is generally unknown, and any one of a number of people may have applied for the permit – the owner, the builder, the subcontractor, and so forth. In cases where the septic system exists but a septic permit cannot be located, you will be required to uncover the septic system for inspection in order to receive a permit. If it isn’t a rain barrel shot full of holes or a Volkswagen – don’t laugh – the environmentalist will consider issuing a permit.

Many people have asked me why they should be expected to pay for a soil science test on a piece of property they want to buy. Why shouldn’t the owner pay for it? In some cases, we can negotiate that, but the custom in our market is that the buyer pays for it. It may be unfair, but it does make some sense, because in that case, the soil scientist is working for you, not the present owner, and you have the opportunity to go to the site with him and learn the details first-hand.

Finally, on a social policy note, it’s worth noting that intentionally or not, the system favors developers rather than resellers, because developers can afford to buy a large tract of land, do what is necessary to gain septic approval, and price their lots accordingly. Resellers, on the other hand, will be stuck with a worthless piece of property if they cannot comply with current regulations. One of my clients owned a lot on the river that she bought around 1950. Buildable, it was worth upwards to $150,000, but it was ruled unbuildable. Now, that woman had paid property taxes on her investment for over fifty years. If she had put that money in the stock market, she would have had a considerable return. As it was, she was very fortunate to sell the lot for a sacrifice price.

People call me every week who want to sell unbuildable property. In most cases, they are sure it is worth a lot of money, money that they need for retirement, or college education for their kids, or for some other purpose. In most cases, these regulations didn’t exist, or were much less stringent, when they bought the lot. In others, they were told it was buildable by the seller, or they had a favorable soil science test a few years ago, or they just assumed that something this unfair couldn’t happen to them. It’s perfectly clear that from the perspective of the county and the state, that’s just their tough luck. Please, don’t be one of them.


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