Houghton Co. tables health code

HOUGHTON — The Houghton County Board will wait a month before voting on the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department’s new environmental code.

The decision to table a vote on the new plan came after a lengthy discussion at Tuesday’s meeting.

The new environmental health code would replace the current plan for well and septic systems, which was last updated in 1998.

“Wastewater technology has greatly advanced in the past 25 years, and we really want our community to be able to utilize advanced technologies for wastewater treatment,” WUPHD Environmental Health Director Tanya Rule said.

The current sanitary code only covers residential property, leaving businesses under more stringent state code, Rule said. Because of that, about 32% of evaluations end with denials.

Several commercial developments are waiting for the new code to be put in place so they can submit permitting requests, Rule said.

Others are on holding tanks because they could not get permitted for a new septic system under the state code, Rule said.

“We have one restaurant who’s on a holding tank, they pay $50,000 to $80,000 dollars a year just to pump that tank out,” Rule said. “So it’s a huge and burdensome cost on their business. If we’re able to put this into our county sanitary code, hopefully we can find a permitting option for them.”

Rule said the updated code would enable more development. In the past five years, the health department has been able to grant 190 variances based on the draft version of the new code for projects that would otherwise not have been approved, she said.

Having an updated code also allows the health department to do enforcement at the local level, versus having to seek enforcement options from the state, Rule said.

“In the past, when we’ve had some enforcement issues, sometimes the county prosecuting attorneys have not wanted to take that on because it’s not in the county code,” she said. “So then basically the state agency has taken the enforcement out of the county level and moved it into the attorney general’s hands. So our goal is to keep it local.”

The Western Upper Peninsula Health Department Board voted to approve the revised code at a public meeting earlier this month, sending it to the member counties for approval. Baraga County’s board voted in favor of the new code Monday.

Houghton County Commissioner Joel Keranen, the sole vote against the plan at the WUPHD meeting, as well as Vice Chair Roy Britz, raised concerns about the plan Tuesday.

They acknowledged letters of approval from engineers and septic professionals. But both objected to the inclusion of the term “potential” in the code, such as one allowing the health department to condemn or order the abandonment of a system that “has the potential to create a public health hazard,” which they felt could leave the door open to subjective decisions.

Keranen said many of his constituents had contacted him disapproving of the code.

“Their concern is basically that we have an unelected bureaucrat enforcing rules and laws in their mind that they feel are unconstitutional,” influenced by the WUPHD’s role in carrying out state mandates during COVID, Keranen said.

Keranen also disapproved of the WUPHD’s approval of the plan before amendments approved by them during the meeting had been formally integrated into the code.

Rule said references to a “potential health hazard” already exist in the current code and others around the country, as well as in its technical manuals and state laws administrated through WUPHD programs.

“Nothing that we do is based on an arbitrary decision … When you’re wanting those hard parameters, those are all in those technical manuals, or they’re based on the policies and procedures that are approved by the board and approved by the state every two years, during our accreditation process,” she said. “Every decision we make has to be able to stand up in a court of law.”

In other action, the board:

• Approved a resolution supporting State Sen. Ed McBroom’s legislation targeted at the “dark store” theory. The issue has attracted attention locally, with the city of Houghton suing Walmart over its attempt to lower its property taxes by 60%. The city said Walmart’s actions violate agreements made with the city when it provided infrastructure assistance during Walmart’s expansion.

• Honored retiring Houghton County Circuit Court Judge Charles Goodman. He has been in the position since 2009, when he was appointed to fill the position left by Garfield Hood. Goodman previously served as probate court judge between 2003 and 2009.

• Formally applied for $800,000 for a feasibility study for a second crossing across the Portage Canal. The board made the appropriations request to U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow for fiscal year 2024.

• Approved several items related to the 911 Advisory Board. The board authorized $100,385 to move 911 equipment from Laurium to the state tower in Centennial. It also approved the purchase of three portable radios, two mobile car radios and two tablets for the city of Hancock for $48,000, and a mobile radio for Mercy EMS for $7,000. A motion to raise Todd LaRoux’s wage as 911 coordinator by $3 an hour passed 4-1, with Chair Tom Tikkanen voting against.

• Held a moment of silence for former Drain Commissioner Raymond Niemi, who served the county for 20 years.


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