The Small Home, Big Decisions series follows Jennifer and her husband, Tyler, as they build a self-reliant homestead on a piece of country property in northeastern Kansas. The series will delve into questions that arise during their building process and the decisions they make along the way. The posts are a work in progress, written as their home-building adventure unfolds.
Let me preface this post with the most important piece of advice that we can offer to anyone preparing to buy land and build a home: Check the zoning and permitting regulations for the county the land is located in before you commit. Let me also say upfront that we did not do this, which is the main reason we wanted to start this blog — so that everyone who reads our posts can hopefully learn from our now very public mistakes. (To be honest, nothing insurmountable has come up, but we’ve had some close calls, including the one we’ll cover in this post.) And, lastly, let me offer one last background note: My wise grandfather, who spent his career as an engineer, warned me to complete a perc test on the soil before we purchased the land, and I did not heed his advice. Not that it would have changed anything, but it would have helped us make more informed decisions from the outset. Now, without further ado …
Septic system installations on rural property are most often regulated by the county in which the land is located. Where we are building, the Leavenworth County Planning and Zoning department is in charge of our poop. (Sorry, I had to say it.) They set the rules and regulations that determine how our septic system needs to be laid out and where it can be sited on our property. To obtain a building permit, we must first obtain a private sewage disposal permit, which requires the following (pulled from the county’s website):
1. Completed Percolation Test Sheet or Soil Profile Description Form.
2. Number of bedrooms, include future planned bedrooms.
3. Name of county licensed installer.
4. Site Plan of the proposed septic system to include the following information:
a. Location of the percolation test or soil profile.
b. Layout of proposed system including laterals, tank, waterlines, wells, foundation drains, ponds, draws and creeks locations.
c. Proposed location of a replacement area for the sewage disposal system consisting of at least 5,000 square feet, or a total set aside of 10,000 square feet for the system.
Basically, to secure a building permit, we need to install our septic system on a site determined by the results of a soil-drainage test. Then, our system must be mapped out and approved by the Zoning and Planning department. After the septic system is installed, a county planner must do a final inspection to approve the system.
I know the process sounds tedious, but it’s really important to do this part right. There are many reasons for having strict standards on septic system installation, the most obvious being that you don’t want what you mean to send to your septic tank to end up in your groundwater supply. So, I looked at some of the county’s forms for septic system installation online, and then decided to call the department and ask them directly. That was a really good move, because I would have never understood what she was requiring of us if I had just tried to read it all on the website.
The zoning department planner informed me that there are two types of soil tests, and at least one needs to be done in order to site and set specifics for a new septic system. The first is the standard perc (“percolation”) test, which is done on high-quality soil types known to drain well, to measure the drainage rate of the soil. The second is a complete soil profile, which is necessary for soils that are likely to not drain as well (no one knows the soil’s drainage rate for sure, it’s an educated guess based on less-specific soil maps held by the county). She sent me the map of our property shown above with the soil types delineated by red lines, and, sure enough, we are planning to build our house within the “soil profile needed” zone. Lucky us.
The county planner provided us with a list of approved Soil Evaluators, which I promptly turned over to our contractor, Jeff Wooster, to handle with his chosen septic installer. Completing the full soil profile will require digging into the soil at various locations with a backhoe, and we decided it made the most sense to let the professionals who are installing the system to handle the details directly.
So, we’ll keep you posted, as there is a chance the soils around where we would ideally site our house just won’t be acceptable drainage-wise to hold our septic system. This is a small chance, but still a possibility all the same. (I’m just going to repeat that getting these tests done would be smart to do before purchasing property, if you can.) All that being said, we’re honestly pretty excited to have a full profile of the property. As gardeners and general soil nerds, we’ll put the information to good use, and will probably hang the resulting map up in the house. Cool.
We learned several other important details about what we would need to do to secure a building permit by talking with the planner in the county’s zoning department. One of those requirements will serve as the next post topic (oh, the suspense).
Map of property from Leavenworth County Zoning and Planning department.
Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can connect directly with Jennifer and Tyler by leaving a comment below!