Before a new home can be constructed, builders must get a building permit. Before they can get that, they need either a guarantee that sewer services will be available or a septic tank permit.
Lincoln County has had a significant problem with getting those septic tank permits approved quickly, a problem that has grown much worse over the last year due to staffing shortages at the Health Dept.
Lincoln isn't the only county with such shortages. The problem exists statewide--and the North Carolina General Assembly addressed it last year by passing a law that permits the use of licensed soil scientists to conduct the inspections usually done by county health departments.
In February of this year, Lincoln County Commissioners, after a meeting with Health Dept. officials, approved steps to try to clear up a backlog of permit requests that had grown thanks to 484 requests from October 1st through January 31st. Those steps included: 1) Health Director Maggie Dollar, County Manager Kelly Atkins and Human Resources Director Candy Burgin are trying to hire additional part-time staff who are licensed Registered Environmental Health Specialists, including some from other counties or retirees who can offer part-time hours. 2) A public notice was issued in February that Lincoln County Environmental Health had temporarily suspended all water sampling for the general public, except for new well permits, mandated facility inspections, and doctors’ orders. Water sampling requests are currently being referred to labs in Charlotte, Hickory, Huntersville, Statesville and Mooresboro. 3) Lincoln County Environmental Health was directed to contact additional engineers and soil scientists to ascertain their availability and cost quotes from these licensed professionals approved by the state to conduct on-site septic system soil evaluations/permits to aid in clearing the backlog cause by County Environmental Health staffing shortages.
Commissioners also approved at their March 4th meeting an additional step--rebates of up to $500 to builders who had used private sources from September 1st of last year until February 1st of this year to expedite their permits while the County dealt with its backlog due to the staffing shortage.
At the Commissioners meeting last Monday (April 1st), another problem surfaced. While some progress had been made, the backlog wasn't yet cleared and it appears that it will take at least another month or two before it is. Dollar told Commissioners that 30 new requests were still waiting.
Dollar said that no rebates for using licensed soil scientists to help with the permitting process had been approved, although she had three requests from one builder for a total of $1500 that appeared to meet the guidelines.
Jimmy Lowe, representing the Lincoln County Homebuilders Association, said he knew of several others who had contracted with soil scientists who were on a list supplied by the Health Dept., but that they had been told that a regular Environmental Health inspector would have to check the results before they could get a permit--still holding up the process.
Dollar explained that to get a permit using a licensed soil scientist for the full scope of the work, applicants must apply for their permit under that special legislation (session law) passed last year.
Commissioners voted unanimously to require that the Health Dept. put that information on its list of approved soil scientists and also decided to allow the period for the rebates previously approved until February 1st to be extended until the end of June.
Commission Chairman Carrol Mitchem told Lowe the County owes the builders an apology and he hopes the decision to extend the rebate period and the other actions taken will be accepted as such. "When you have to apologize for something, it's a sign of weakness--and Lincoln County is very weak in this area."
Readers can see the video of the discussion and action on the Lincoln County website at https://lincolncountync.viebit.com/player.php?hash=hWA0XblBmDeP. The septic tank permitting discussion begins at 16:30 of the meeting.
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