By DOUG NURSE www.ajc.com
In Milton, people have shown a hostility to sewer projects that would astound most outsiders.
It just stands to reason that grass is green, water runs downhill and sewer service brings bulldozers, concrete and people.
Supporters of the city's unofficial no-sewer policy believe that limiting sewers will keep density down and maintain the agrarian charm they love so much.
So that leaves septic tanks, which generally require one unit per acre. No-sewer proponents argue that septic systems' land requirements keep out apartments, townhomes and most commercial projects.
But some say using septic tanks to control growth could backfire.
Dan Reuter, land use chief for the Atlanta Regional Commission, says he doesn't believe a no-sewer policy is a reliable way to preserve the Milton quality of life.
About 85 percent of the city is zoned agricultural, which allows a developer to build homes on 1-acre lots without going through the rezoning process.
"They're just going to end up with a bunch of 1-acre lots, which is classic suburban density," he said. "When you think of Milton, you think of an upscale community and good schools, and those places attract people. Ultimately, they won't have any open space unless the city buys it."
Councilwoman a backer
The champion of the no-sewer approach is city Councilwoman Julie Zahner Bailey. Bailey disagrees that a septic-only policy will necessarily result in sprawl. She said rugged topography and poor soils will require many parcels to be more than one acre. And the market will help, she said.
"People who come here want to live in a community with a unique, rural, equestrian flavor," Bailey said. "You have many people investing in land so they have more than 1 acre. There will be a healthy balance of subdivisions, farms and estates."
Sally Bethea, executive director of the environmental group Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said a policy of no-sewer actually could make the city develop more quickly.
"Developers love septic systems," Bethea said. "They don't have to wait for the community to invest in infrastructure. They can come in and build their houses right now with septic tanks. It's cheaper and faster."
Federal and state environmental agencies say that septic tanks are a viable alternative if they are properly sited, installed and maintained. They typically need to be pumped out every three to five years, and owners shouldn't plant vegetation over the system's drainfield.
Critics of septic tanks say relatively few people are diligent about having their septic tank pumped out. The resulting failures means the nasty stuff can leach into ground water, creeks or rivers.
Nolan Ingram, who pumped out septic tanks in Milton from 1974 to last April, said not many people take care of their septic systems.
"If it's not backing up, they don't want to fool with it," Ingram said. "There's just a handful that are good about pumping out their tanks. ... A lot of them don't want to mess up their yards."
To address that, Bailey said the city could pass an ordinance requiring property owners to show proof they maintain their septic tanks.
She added public sewer systems can fail, and sometimes dump huge quantities of untreated waste into rivers and streams. (Sewer proponents argue it also gets cleaned up quicker.)
Critics also say septic systems worsen water shortages because they are so slow to return water to a water source.
Drought a consideration
According to a 2006 Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District working paper: "Septic systems are seen as a consumptive use. During drought, it is reasonable to assume the consumptive loss is very high. In the face of limited water resources, consumptive use needs to be minimized and returns via wastewater point sources discharges [sewer] need to be maximized."
The Georgia Statewide Water Plan also said "some portion" of the water does not return to its source in a time frame to be of any use to anyone.
"For practical purposes, this temporarily absent water contributes to the cumulative consumptive use in a sub-basin or watershed," it said.
Bailey countered that stormwater runoff and greater consumption of water come with higher density.
City Councilman Bill Lusk believes the best way to ensure the city maintains its rustic feel is through good zoning and a comprehensive land-use plan. He said sewer in some commercial corridors may be justified.
"We can nail it down enough to say that this is the law, this is what people want," Lusk said. "Extending sewer to the entirety of the city is a physical and financial impossibility. Given the distances, the return on investment isn't there. The only place sewer is viable is in the commercial areas. Citywide sewer is not going to happen."
While Bailey supports crafting a comprehensive plan and zoning ordinances and sticking to them, she doesn't believe those will be enough to keep the community's country atmosphere.
"You have to consider the human element," Bailey said. "You have to add the element of political pressure. Elected officials could start making exceptions. The fact is, if there's no sewer, certain densities aren't possible. It stays rural."