A Septic System at the Crossroads

The county building department inspector and I were finally standing on the sand next to a hole the size and shape of a vertical grave. According to his business card, young Craig (so we'll call him) was a deputy sanitarian. He was there to approve the hole for a percolation test. If, after 48 hours of a continuous trickle from a hose, no standing water were visible in the hole, the county would approve a septic system, and I could get on with building my family's house.

I was thinking "bless deputy sanitarians everywhere" for the same reason people say "thank God for aspirin" after a headache goes away. The percolation test was going to be a formality. The building site was on a sand dune hundreds of feet deep, near the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Even if the trickle lasted a century, there would be no standing water in the hole. The building department had run out of reasons to obstruct my project.

A hundred and thirty-three days earlier, I had submitted plans for my house to the county building department. A month later, the department sent a letter explaining that the proposed septic system had to be relocated sixty feet to the east of a location the county had approved earlier. However, in recent months, a bald eagle's nest had been spotted in adjacent public lands, and the county now required a buffer between the nest and any development on my property. Fine. I had seen a bald eagle soaring overhead -- once with something that looked like a small animal it its claws. Anything for the symbol of America. And the septic system relocation was less than trivial, a few steps in one direction in the midst of millions of acres of sandy wilderness that was already officially sanctioned for a septic system.

The problem arose when the relocation required a new permit application, complete with fresh paperwork, hefty fees, a two-week waiting period for public input, and a new soil study by a professional soil engineer on a county-approved list.

I called the man who had signed the letter and appealed to his common sense, to his engineering acumen, and finally to his decency. Any moron could see that the septic system could be nudged a few feet with zero environmental impact -- the approved sand dune was the same whether 8' or 80' or 8,000' feet from the property line. What could possibly be accomplished by breathing life into a new bureaucratic tangle? But in the end, my entreaties failed, and the conversation amounted to mutual declarations of war. I backed off when he began making vague references to a possible environmental assessment report. Thus began a slow-motion shell game in which a bureaucrat, after extracting an extortionate fee, transferred irrelevant paperwork from one file folder to another. Some highlights of that loony process ($2,831.00, 103 days) are shown below:

  • Submit plans to county ($450.00).
  • County disapproves plans, requires variance.
  • Variance request submitted ($125.00).
  • Request denied. New application and soil study required.
  • At an arbitration meeting ($250.00), the arbitrator rules for the county. Not technically a county employee, he's on a chummy first-name basis with the county representatives.
  • Start new application ($125.00) and commission a second soil study ($1,350.00) by an engineer on the county-approved list .
  • Plan reviewers fail to show for a meeting. They're at a 'team-building' retreat. In an unpleasant scene, two customer service representatives complain about my attitude after I tell them that for the non-meeting I had to drive 180 miles over winding mountain roads.
  • County approves new septic system location.
  • Craig makes site visit for percolation test ($541.00).

Back at the percolation test, all that was history. I understood it and wasn't destined to repeat it. But Craig had been leafing through his papers for a long while. "Is there a problem?" I asked.

"Your soil engineer isn't on the new approved list."

"He's gotta be there. You guys gave me his name."

Craig pulled out his cell phone and spoke intently with his superiors. Eventually he hung up and said, "It's probably nothing serious. But something's screwy with the new list, and I can't do the inspection until the paperwork is right."

"What's the problem?"

"We're not sure yet, but your engineer just isn't on the list."

"So you don't know how long it's going to take to fix or if it can be fixed?"

Craig muttered abjectly, "I'm sorry. I'm still on probation and they audit me."

Like contentious litigation, every interaction with the building department had a tendency to take on an unpredictable life of its own. This was a moment of truth. God may have understood the SNAFU that had kept my engineer's name off the list, but I didn't. When does reasonable accommodation become craven appeasement? Would I continue working with the totalitarians who were polluting my life? Would I start another round of telephone tag, being stood up at meetings, preparing for rigged arbitrations, and paying the fees? Would I have to commission yet another soil assessment, the third one that would reiterate what everybody already knew? Or would I draw a line in the literal sand and rebel against the yoke of tyranny? A crazy image flashed through my mind. I was in the percolation test hole with a rifle, holding off swarms of g-men in bulletproof vests as helicopters and a lone bald eagle circled overhead.

At the same time I empathized with Craig. He sure looked wretched. He probably just felt lucky to have a job, maybe with a wife and baby in a starter home. Did he also imagine himself at a crossroads? Was he sensing that every governmental subjugation of a citizen is important? That in the final analysis, all oppression is inflicted, and fought, one person at a time? That maltreatment over something as trifling as a septic system has colossally corrosive effects on the workers paid to enforce the maltreatment? Was he asking himself what kind of public servant he was going to be? Or was he just alarmed at the murderous look on my face? Because I also sensed young Craig might need to be strangled.

After several terrible moments, Craig looked at me with resolve, and spoke. Since then, in dark moments when I have feared that our republic is doomed, Craig's inspirational words have rallied me to have hope for our future. He said, "Mr. Toy, turn on your hose."