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For public safety


Discharging raw sewage onto your neighbor’s property or into a community’s rivers and streams is not exercising property rights or religious freedom; it is endangering public health and safety. Lawmakers need to support proposed legislation that will clarify state law regarding septic tanks and help local government regulate building and sanitation systems.

An ongoing dispute between the Fort Wayne Allen County Department of Health and a small but vocal group of residents who claim they don’t want the government interfering with their lives has led to the legislation.

About 10 years ago, the health department began receiving complaints from neighbors about sewage and waste on their property. The complaints stemmed from improperly installed septic tanks. Amish residents have long used an exemption in building codes, called the log-cabin rule, in constructing their homes. The log-cabin rule allows people to build – without permits – their own home on their own land in an unincorporated area. Some people claim the law also grants an exemption to health and sanitation rules.

Senate Bill 159, authored by Sen. Tom Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, has already passed in that chamber. Rep. Kathy Heuer, R-Columbia City, is sponsoring the bill in the House. It would clarify that the log-cabin rule does not extend to regulations from health departments governing sanitation – reflecting court rulings.

Some state lawmakers, including Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, and Rep. David Wolkins, R-Winona Lake, oppose the legislation because they believe it infringes on the religious beliefs of the Amish.

“It has nothing to do with property rights or religious freedom,” said Mindy Waldron, health department administrator. “Sewage leaves the property, and so it becomes a problem for your neighbors and the community as a whole.”

The health department does not go out looking for failed septic systems. It is a complaint-driven process. Waldron said the county tried to solve the problem administratively, and most people complied by making needed repairs. But some refused and the county had to push forward with legal cases or risk being held liable for failing to protect the public and for not holding violators accountable.

“They were right. We needed to make sure the entire community is safe and that everyone is complying with the law,” Waldron said.

It becomes an issue of fairness. Septic systems are expensive. It’s not fair to force some people to spend the money to ensure their sewage is being treated properly while others are allowed to pollute.

The county took several cases to court and won each time, but the local health department turned to state lawmakers because the health department was depleting its limited resources by fighting the same cases in the courts over and over.

The legislation would make it clear that everyone needs to get permits for sewage systems, to allow the septic systems to be inspected and to make repairs when needed.

Waldron said it’s a very clear issue of public health and that the claim of its being a religious-rights issue is a distracting side story. “I have yet to hear a valid reason why it’s OK to pollute the water when it causes disease,” she said.