GROTON -- The exact meaning of information on a Title 5 form became a matter of interpretation as the Board of Health decided that conflicting claims made by a private contractor indicated overall failure of the wastewater system in question.
The finding was only the latest setback suffered by 366 Lost Lake property owner Lawrence Johnson who has been in a tug-of-war with the board for more than four years to correct what the board terms as unsanitary conditions there.
The board first took notice of the 366 Lost Lake property in response to complaints by Johnson's neighbors. He was charged with a violation of the health code dealing with scattered, disorderly debris on private property that could present a fire hazard or become a haven for animals and vermin.
At the time, Johnson's property had been littered with old cars, wood, metal parts, swimming pool equipment and other items about his property.
Over the years since, Johnson has been given time to comply with the board's wishes to clean up his property but has not completed the task, giving reasons why he could not meet deadlines.
Nevertheless, progress had been made to the point that health agent Ira Grossman reported to the board earlier in the fall that his focus had moved on to another sore point, an existing home on the property. That building has been condemned and Johnson has declared his intention to demolish it and replace it with a new structure.
At the board's meeting of Dec. 2, the latest issue was a septic system attached to the house and the manner in which contractor Robert Ratta, hired by Johnson to inspect the existing septic system for compliance with the state's Title 5 regulations, reported on it.
Citing seeming contradictions in boxes checked off on a Title 5 inspection form filled out by Ratta, Grossman noted that in one place, the contractor had checked off a box indicating that parts of the system had "conditionally passed" inspection while in another, said that the same system needed "further evaluation."
It could not be both but needed to be one or the other, said Grossman, who insisted that there was no provision on the form for conditional approval but only for needing further evaluation.
And if that were so, then the existing system would by definition need to be designated as having failed inspection and could not be certified.
Board chairman Jason Weber downplayed the disagreement in his opening remarks at the Dec. 2 public hearing describing the contractor's action in filling out the form as simply being a "mistake."
"There's no mistake in that form at all," said Ratta.
Based on his long experience in working with septic systems, the contractor said he could tell that Johnson's system is in pretty good condition and that was the reason why he did not mark it as being in outright failure.
"I'm a little shocked," concluded Ratta, surprised at the fuss raised about which boxes on the form had been checked off.
The contractor concluded that the only reason for it was that Grossman did not want to see anything of Johnson's existing building saved.
"He just doesn't like this house," claimed Ratta.
Grossman told board members that the form should have been filled out with only the "needs further evaluation" designation filled out and nothing else, eliminating any confusion about the exact status of the septic system.
"So this is really a technical disconnect?" asked board member Susan Horowitz.
In addition to disagreeing over the form, Ratta and Grossman also sparred over who was responsible in getting the groundwater at the site tested for contamination, the health agent or the homeowner.
It was Ratta's contention that it was Grossman's responsibility with the health agent saying it was Johnson's.
Without a test of local water quality, it is impossible to tell with certainty if a septic system is leaking or not. Absent such findings, the board would have no choice but to take the default position of declaring the system in failure until proven otherwise.
Which was exactly what it did at the conclusion of the Dec. 2 hearing.