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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Ind. law - Issue of a county’s right to apply health code regulations on sewage disposal systems

Niki Kelly has a long story today in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, headed "Statehouse gets county septic fight: Bill on permits would narrow exemptions for Amish." Here is the first part of the long story:

INDIANAPOLIS – An Allen County fight over waste disposal has hit the Indiana Statehouse, pitting lawmakers concerned about health and safety against those defending the religious beliefs of the Amish.

“Their way of life is to take care of themselves without government interference,” said Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn. “Not one Amish person wants a failing septic system. They live off the land so they take care of it.”

The battle began about 10 years ago when the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health started seeing more Amish installing their own septic systems and receiving complaints from neighbors about sewage and waste on their property.

Mindy Waldron, health department administrator, said the department tried to work through administrative avenues and many of the Amish complied.

But a small group of about 75 homeowners have fought every step of the way, including not getting permits to build septic systems and refusing inspections.

Allen County eventually took several cases to court and has won every time.

“I believe it is an important issue to my constituents in both Allen and Whitley Counties, both as a health issue and a monetary one in that their tax dollars are being spent in litigation trying to provide a healthy environment for their families and mine,” said Rep. Kathy Heuer, R-Columbia City.

Heuer is sponsoring a Senate bill (SB 159) on the issue that was written by Sen. Tom Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, and already passed that chamber.

At issue is the “log-cabin rule,” which dates back to the turn of the century. It generally says people can build their own house on their land in an unincorporated area without permits. If they want to sell the house in the future, it has to be disclosed and the home brought up to code.

The Amish have long used this exemption in building codes for constructing their own houses. But they have also interpreted it in recent years to also apply to health and sanitation rules.

Allen County appears to be the epicenter of the fight, though isolated cases have been found in a few other counties.

The Indiana Court of Appeals originally weighed in through a Washington County case in 2007, backing a county’s right to apply health code regulations on sewage disposal systems.

Allen County also won a 2011 case, and on Jan. 31 the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled again in its favor of another one. A Jay County case from 2012 also backed the county interpretation.

“We are trying to codify what the courts have said over and over because it is draining our legal resources to keep fighting the same fight,” Waldron said. “I just don’t think that proper sewage control is something that can be deemed optional. The effects are felt throughout the community in terms of disease and water pollution.”

Posted by Marcia Oddi on February 10, 2013 06:22 PM
Posted to Indiana Government | Indiana Law