If you have a home with more bedrooms than you actually use as bedrooms, it is now going to be legal in Brown County to fill out a form promising that you won’t use them as bedrooms — therefore avoiding possibly having to get a bigger septic system to serve them.
The Brown County Board of Health unanimously voted for this “bedroom affidavit” at its January meeting, against the wishes of John Kennard, a health department employee charged with enforcing the county’s septic ordinance. Brown County Health Officer Dr. Norman Oestrike, who’s in charge of the health department, supported it.
This affidavit option is allowed through state code, Oestrike told the board. It already had been allowed in Brown County for builders of new homes. The health board’s vote extends the option to owners of existing homes as well.
One of Oestrike’s big concerns with the county’s septic ordinance, which is currently under revision, was that buyers could unknowingly purchase a home with more bedrooms than the septic system was sized to handle, and then if they used those rooms as bedrooms, their system might fail, costing them more money.
One of the ordinance revision attempts added a requirement that septic systems be inspected when homes are sold, but that revision did not pass into law. Extending this bedroom affidavit to existing homes gives a level of disclosure to buyers, Oestrike said.
The intent is for the bedroom affidavit to be attached to the property deed so it would follow to the new owner, he said. If a new owner ever decided he wanted to use those extra bedrooms as actual bedrooms, he could do so if he upgraded the septic system to handle that extra flow, and then the affidavit could be removed, Oestrike said.
“The purpose of the affidavit is if there are rooms that the health department, by definition, considers to be bedrooms or possible bedrooms and the homeowner says, ‘No, I don’t use them as bedrooms, so I don’t need the full size septic,’” Oestrike said.
How, exactly, this form would become “attached” to the deed, and other details, like how the health department would know about affidavits, haven’t been worked out yet. Those were among Kennard’s concerns.
“It’s great for the state to do this, but there’s not a defined way to make it work,” he said. “So what you’ve done is, effectively, you’re going to put the health department back in the trick bag because it’ll be our responsibility to follow up on this being done. And once it’s outside the door of the health department, we have no authority to get it done.”
Oestrike answered that the affidavit doesn’t “protect” the health department, but it does allow a homeowner to document how they’re actually using the house, and it also allows a home buyer to have recourse against a seller if he feels he was sold more bedrooms than he could actually use as bedrooms.
“You’re absolutely right: It does not solve the problem that the health department has; it solves the problem of the buyer-seller relationship,” Oestrike said.
Kennard again voiced his objection. “I don’t want to upset Doc, but I have not agreed with this from the get-go,” he said. “This is an ongoing problem in Brown County, trying to get people to notify us prior to a remodel that adds a bedroom, and we catch it at the sale when they put the sale paper up and identify that we’ve got five bedrooms on a two-bedroom septic. And it happens almost every single day. And I think anytime you give the homeowner latitude to adjust what they are going to use that house for versus what it’s built, you are going to put the responsibility on the health department to protect the next buyer down the line.
“If you’re going to build a three-bedroom house, you put a three-bedroom septic in, and we should be the ones to determine if it’s a bedroom or not,” Kennard said.
All health board members supported the affidavit option. Member Cathy Rountree noted that during the septic ordinance discussion, one of the public’s requests was that they be able to “define the use of their home.”
“I think it’s a positive and it’s a starting ground, and it gives some power back to the homeowner as to how they’re going to use their house,” she said.
“I agree with that,” said board member Dr. Bill Irvine. “When the property does sell, then it’s an obligation of someone — I don’t know the Realtor or who — to explain to them the situation and, indeed, this bedroom X could be used, but you would have to modify or expand the septic system in order to do that. It would be full disclosure.”
Kennard suggested that if the board does pass this, it also have the point-of-sale inspections put back into the septic ordinance. He brought up that many property records, which the ordinance revision committee is looking through now, now do not have any records of a septic system on them, so it isn’t known if they are sized properly or not.
Board member Linda Bauer said she still likes the idea of point-of-sale inspections, but the whole board didn’t come to a consensus on that point. Board President Thomi Elmore said that the ordinance revision committee might take another look at this form to see how it fits into what they’re doing.
The board approved the use of this affidavit form, but still needs to set up rules for enforcement, Bauer said. She suggested that it be put on the health department’s website for now in hopes that homeowners would voluntarily fill it out.
The septic ordinance revision committee and its subcommittees continue to have public meetings. The remediation subcommittee will meet at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 12 and the full septic ordinance revision subcommittee will meet at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 19, both in the County Office Building’s Salmon Room in Nashville.