Planning has come to a standstill in Co Leitrim as a result of the waste water directive from the EPA.
For the past eight years those wanting to build a one-off rural home in Leitrim have faced an impossible battle to secure planning in a county where more than 87% of land has been written off as unsuitable for the installation of a standard waste water treatment system and therefore, development.
No one could have envisioned that, so long after the introduction of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) guidelines on wastewater for one-off houses, there would still be no workable solution for families in Co Leitrim. Families who, by and large, just want to build a home in the area they grew up in.
No one can argue that rural communities aren't dying. Schools are closing, townlands are emptying and the best and brightest, and let's be honest, the youngest members of such communities, haven't been able to build a home here. Planning hasn't just dwindled, it has ground to a halt in rural areas.
Earlier this year Leitrim County Council made a call out for expressions of interest for those who would be prepared to build a home utilising an experimental waste water treatment system aimed at overcoming the planning impasse impacting most of the county.
Last week the 13 families who had been selected for possible inclusion on the pilot scheme found out the potential cost of the new scheme - a whopping €55,000. In very real terms, nearly 50% of the average build cost for a home in Co Leitrim.
While it is acknowledged this cost is the “worst case scenario” and each potential house site will vary in costs according to the site and the conditions, the number was shocking for most participants who had thought that they were looking at a potential bill in the region of €20-30,000.
A bone of contention surely must be that a large portion of the cost - nearly one third in fact - is down to the installation of instrumentation and monitoring as part of the pilot scheme.
These householders are already bearing a huge financial burden to take part in the pilot scheme - a scheme which seeks to find a solution which will, ultimately, benefit other families in Co Leitrim and around the country in areas where soil drainage has stopped planning.
No doubt, if approved, others will benefit from the study and the costs of installing future systems will come down but €16,000 of the costs bourne by those in the pilot scheme is down to monitoring and sample analysis and they are bearing that cost to find a workable solution for the rest of us.
Acting Chief Executive of Leitrim County Council, Joseph Gilhooly, told the Leitrim Observer it is now up to those who had expressed an interest in the pilot scheme to decide whether they wished to proceed to planning.
“When we asked for expressions of interest we did have 26 people come forward and we selected 13 from that list (for the pilot scheme),” he said.
“So if we don't have enough people to go forward from the original group, we do have others who have expressed an interest.”
Just how many would be needed to participate in the pilot study?
Mr Gilhooly says at least 4-6 homes would have to be built using the proposed waste water treatment system to allow for comprehensive results.
It's clear, those hoping for a quick resolution to the planning problems plaguing one-off housing are in for disappointment. The reality is that even if those interested in the pilot scheme go for planning, it will be in the region of 18 months to two years before the homes are habitable and thus, before monitoring of the new waste water treatment system can begin.
Monitoring of the system will then take place for the following four years before the findings can be collated, evaluated and, hopefully, approved by the EPA.
There is also the question of what will happen to those who take part in the pilot scheme if the new system fails to deliver results at the level requested by the EPA.
Mr Gilhooly says all the research to date indicates the system will work but acknowledges there is a risk that it will have some discharge and that would require additional works, financed by the householder, to remedy.
Councillors have also expressed their dismay at the costs involved in the pilot scheme.
Cllr Paddy O'Rourke declared his “utter disappointment” at the cost of the proposed waste water system.
While acknowledging the efforts of Leitrim County Council to find a solution to planning issues in areas deemed unsuitable for a conventional septic tanks, Cllr O'Rourke said the proposed €55,000 system “is simply a bridge too far for people”.
Cllr O'Rourke said the only affordable solution is to allow house holders to have a service agreement with a licenced contractor to de-sludge their septic tanks on an annual basis, delivering this material to one of the council's own treatment plants, rather than putting the burden of such an expensive system on householders.
Cllr Caillian Ellis has also been critical of the proposed pilot system.
“I know several people who were interested in this pilot project, but when they heard the potential cost of the system...they were totally shocked,” he said.
“It is totally unacceptable for any couple who wants to build to have to put this kind of money into a waste water treatment system. Totally unacceptable. That is half of the cost of what building an average house would be.”