BELTON — The Bell County Commissioners Court discussed the need for a new process granting county personnel the power to review private residence construction blueprints in order to ensure they are adequately served by water and wastewater service.

The discussion took place in the commissioners’ Monday morning workshop meeting after Michael Jahns, director of environmental services for Bell County’s Public Health District, gave a report about a recent increase in improper subdivision of platted properties.

In unincorporated areas of the county, individuals are purchasing lots, generally under 1 acre in size, that had been platted for single-family dwellings and illegally subdividing them, Jahns said.

The subdivision — which can take the form of construction of unauthorized duplex or moving multiple mobile homes onto a piece of property — can cause problems for the septic system, Richard Cortese, Precinct 1 commissioner, said.

“If they have a 21,000-square-foot lot and put two or three mobile homes on it, they don’t have enough space to put in septic systems for each one,” Cortese said. The lack of space could conceivably lead to multiple dwellings being connected to a single septic system, or a septic system that doesn’t have enough room to discharge the waste.

“If they are abusing the septic system and it’s not surfacing, then it’s possibly poisoning the groundwater,” Jahns said. He added that under the current system, inspectors from the public health district aren’t aware of violations until it’s almost too late.

“We don’t catch them until the house is built,” Jahns said. “We don’t like going up to someone and telling them after they’ve spent $130,000 building a duplex that they can’t occupy it.”

His concerns prompted Tim Brown, Precinct 2 commissioner, to propose what he knew to be an unpopular solution.

“No one’s going to like it but we can start a permitting process,” Brown said. He proposed using the authority granted to the county by Texas Senate Bill 873, which was passed by the 2013 Legislature.

“The bill expands our ability to regulate groundwater,” Cortese said in a later interview.

Brown’s interpretation of the bill, which was tacitly approved by County Attorney Jim Nichols, is that Senate Bill 873 allows the county to “do anything that protects the health, safety and welfare of the public” that relates to groundwater.

“And we’re justified in protecting the health and safety because we’re ensuring working septic systems,” Brown said.

Another problem comes from single-family homes not realizing how much space they need to reserve for a septic system, Cortese said.

“If someone buys a half-acre lot and then puts a deck, a pool, a shop and a house on it, there isn’t enough room for a septic tank,” he said.

Under the current ordinance, a homeowner is required to have enough space for a secondary septic system should the primary one fail.

The county will look into possible enforcement actions and determine what can be done, County Judge Jon Burrows said.

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