Lincoln County began licensing short-term rentals (STRs) in 2016 under an ordinance regulating businesses. Until March 2019, when a citizen group met with each of the county's board of commissioners and the county counsel, the county was oblivious to the fact that it had licensed hundreds of high-occupancy STRs dependent on septic systems for sewage disposal. The citizen group provided evidence of a failed STR septic system that was discharging raw sewage directly into the ground, resulting in a public health hazard affecting a neighbor. In September 2019, the ordinance was amended to add minimal provisions regarding septic systems.
Recently, the county sanitarian provided input to the board of commissioners regarding characteristics of septic systems and how they function, and the impacts of intermittent feast/famine usage by large numbers of renters at STRs. The crux is that septic systems are designed for, and work best for reasonably constant usage. The systems use bacteria to break down much of the waste, and undigestable solids sink to the bottom of the septic tank while remaining processed liquids gradually flow into the drain field for further aerobic bacterial action in the soil that destroys any remaining pathogens.
A septic tank is designed to hold some excess input, but has a limited capacity. When too large a flow enters and exceeds tank capacity, it can push solid effluents out into the drain field before it has been digested and overwhelm the ability of soil bacteria to keep up. It can also cause plugging and backups into a house. When a system designed for, say four to six people, is used by eight to 11 people for a few days or more, every week for some time, it can become overwhelmed and fail.
Septic system failures are expensive to repair, and worse, contaminate soil and water with pathogens that can lead to problems for neighboring property owners. As the sanitarian said, large numbers of STR renters cause surges in septic system usage that can quickly overwhelm system capacity and pose a public health hazard.
Recently, a new and serious question has arisen. It appears that Lincoln County may be inadvertently violating Oregon Health Authority rules by licensing or even tolerating STRs on septic systems. A public health division rule clearly states, "Sewage and wastewater must be disposed of into a public sewerage system in a manner approved by the Department of Environmental Quality." This is not being done by STRs on septic systems.
For a fuller reference, see Public Health Division Chapter 333, Division 29 Travelers' Accommodation Rules at: https://secure.sos.state.or.us/oard/displayDivisionRules.action?selectedDivision=1244
Relevant excerpts, emphasis added:
• 333-029-0015 Definitions: (10) "Travelers' Accommodation" includes any establishment, which is not a hostel, having rooms, apartments or sleeping facilities rented or kept for rent on a daily or weekly basis to travelers or transients for a charge or fee paid or to be paid for rental or use of facilities.
• 333-029-0080 Sewage Disposal: (1) Travelers' accommodations and hostels must provide an adequate and safe sewerage system. (2) Sewage and wastewater must be disposed of into a public sewerage system in a manner approved by the Department of Environmental Quality.
• 333-029-0120 Variance: (1) The Division may grant a variance from the requirements of OAR 333-029-0005 through 333-029-0110 … as follows … (2) Such variance authority is not conferred upon any county notwithstanding delegated or contractual authority in the administration and enforcement of travelers’ accommodation statutes and rules.
If Lincoln County is in violation of this state-mandated rule, it should revoke the licenses of any STRs operating on septic systems and not issue any new licenses.
Jim Peterson is a resident of Depoe Bay.