Ned Farquhar: Affordable rental housing, without uncontrolled expansion or large public investment

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This comment is from Ned Farquhar, a Waitsfield resident who recently served on the board of Friends of the Mad River.

We have an old sugar factory on our property, one that an excellent Central Vermont band (“Sugar Shack”) is named after because they rehearsed there. The place pretty much resonates with the atmosphere if not the sound of the Grateful Dead.

We were interested in whether Sugar Shack could be converted into a highly liveable and extremely beautiful affordable housing unit here in our Mad River Valley, where there is an extreme shortage of rental units for young couples and singles.

So I started asking around. What would it take?

Obviously a water supply system and at least one gray water disposal system. Fortunately there is a large well just uphill.

And something for septic treatment too, for sure. I inquired from state and local experts, government and private consultants. It turns out that the cost of converting that sugar factory to a septic system would cost at least $ 35,000 to $ 40,000.

Perfect opportunity for a composting system, I thought. They’ve come quite miraculously, for basic technology, since I learned of them in the 1980s and 1990s as director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. (In fact, at the time, a visionary and ambitious bio-experiment in a major local ski area failed because, as I understand it, hot tub owners used copper sulfate to clean the tubs, killing the greenhouse herbs. intended to purify effluents.)

But one or two people should be able to use and manage a conventional composting toilet with little trouble and a lot of savings, I thought.


State rules require a backup septic system with 75% of the capacity of a standard septic system, in case the toilet composting system fails.

It almost never happens. And if you have a breakdown, it’s easy enough to replace the failed composting toilet, perhaps for $ 1,500 to $ 2,000. You don’t need a spare septic tank and a $ 35,000 to $ 40,000 field. Just establish a new rule that a failed composting toilet must be replaced safely and immediately.

Very few toilet users would want to live with a bad bathroom for a long time, even one day. Connecting a new conventional toilet to a backup septic system would take a lot longer and likely cost a lot more.

And why would 75% of a septic field be enough to replace a failed composting system? There is something wrong with the logic of saying that you can build three quarters of the usual septic field safe for what would be 100% of the usual use of your bathroom.

Many Vermonters have outbuildings or extra space that could be converted by relying on composting toilets instead of expanding their septic systems. Vermont could free up many homeowners to help with the state’s affordable housing challenge, at least for rentals, by allowing for a more logical regulatory system for toilet composting. Vermont seniors might appreciate a renter who can help with housework or look at the home when the owner-retirees are away.

This will not pose a threat to the quality of the water. Composting toilets create clean, usable compost / waste. And they don’t leak into our waterways like septic systems sometimes do. If they fail, they can be quickly removed and conveniently replaced, unlike a septic tank and field. They are a smart way to manage water and waste.

The costly and prohibitively expensive belt and harness approach of our outdated septic rules needs to be rethought, now. I can’t wait to hear from state officials, including our lawmakers, if the reconsideration of toilet composting rules could be timely and what the obstacles could be. Many Vermonters, homeowners and renters, will benefit from this.

With a nod from the large windows of the Sugar Shack, thank you for thinking about a new approach to toilet composting.

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