Management and Ownership of Multi-House Systems

Septic systems--for homes not connected to municipal sewer-- treat household wastewater to protect family health and the environment. In most cases, septic systems are owned and managed by the individual homeowner. Management of a septic system includes the daily operation and the maintenance necessary to keep it functioning properly. Of course, daily operation (flushing the toilet, washing the clothes, etc.,) is the responsibility of all persons in the household.

In some situations where homes are located on small lots, such as a small rural town or around a lake, several homeowners may find it necessary or advantageous to join together with neighbors to treat their household wastewater. In this case everyone connected to the system must take personal responsibility for the day-to-day operation, although the group as a whole has special interest in the maintenance. Multiple- household systems can have individual or larger group septic tanks and any type of soil treatment system appropriate to the soil conditions and space available.

The drainfield, mound or other system may be located on property purchased or leased specifically for this purpose or on a property already owned jointly, as in a cluster housing development. The more people in the system and the more complicated the treatment technology, the more important proper management becomes. Management structure options fall into two primary categories: private and public.

Private management structure options include homeowners, associations, private joint ventures and water quality cooperatives. Homeowner associations, the most common entity, typically have by-laws that regulate the community property on which all or part of the treatment system is located. They may or may not have trouble recruiting and maintaining dedicated staff or qualified volunteers to deal with all management functions.

A "privatized joint venture" may be set up by a local unit of government to contract a private vendor to provide management services to homeowners for a user fee. The vendor may contract with several communities.

Water quality cooperatives are a new structure allowed by 1997 Minnesota legislation. This organization is like a rural electric cooperative that furnishes management expertise and levies a fee for its services. The legislation authorized two pilot cooperatives to be formed in Minnesota.

Public management structure options include municipal utilities, sanitary sewer districts, and subordinate service districts. Public utilities, formed by cities, townships, or counties, are the most common form. They are a separate government entity providing wastewater treatment services assessing the users of the service to cover the costs.

Sanitary sewer districts may be formed by cities, townships, and counties or by petition to the MPCA of 20 percent of the voters residing and owning land in the affected area. Special state legislation and district courts can also create such districts.

Environmental subordinate service districts are becoming popular in Minnesota. These are typically a three-way partnership between private citizens, a township (often with county cooperation), and a local vendor--often a local utility. The adaptation of these districts to multi-household septic systems began in Cass County in 1994.

To be effective, all management structures must work to educate homeowners about the importance of good day-to-day use of their septic system, provide continuous monitoring of the soil treatment system, and arrange for routine cleaning and maintenance of the individual or community septic tanks.

Septic System Maintenance and Management