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BOA rejects geothermal heat system

BY Sarah smith

An open loop geothermal heating system, touted as environmentally friendly because it doesn’t burn fossil fuels, was given the thumbs down Monday by Hubbard County’s Board of Adjustment.

Too little is known about the system’s impact on aquifers and lake water, the board determined. Water is pulled from a well, runs through a heat exchanger and dumped back onto the ground, where it can seep underground or into a lake.

The decision left homeowners Greg and Jeanne Mehlhop and their contractors flabbergasted, since neither the DNR, the MPCA nor any other agencies currently regulate the technology.

Bryan Kerby and Justin Isaacson

“There may be future regulations down the road but we have to abide by (current laws) now,” said Bryan Kerby at Northwoods Log Homes, who built the home on Garfield Lake.

Common problems such as phosphorus, which leaks from traditional septic systems “is nonexistent in this well,” Kerby told the board, suggesting the issues raised by the board should be addressed at the state level.

The expensive geothermal system has far-ranging environmental credentials, said Justin Isaacson, owner of Ike’s Heating & Cooling of Nevis.

“The carbon footprint is considerably less,” Isaacson said. “It would be a lot easier for me to throw in a gas furnace and be done with it.”

The Mehlhops chose to install the system to be good lake stewards, he said.

Geothermal systems also come with closed loop technology, which might have passed muster more easily, but those systems are even more costly.

Board members expressed concerns about air gaps underground allowing bacteria to crawl up the pipes and contaminate the water, water flow into the aquifer or lake and the amount of water potentially being discharged from numerous systems, if more lake residents opted for geothermal heating.

Isaacson said there are at least five such systems on each lake, installed as regular heating systems without the county’s knowledge.

The Mehlhops were granted a variance in July 2012 to replace an existing cabin on the site at less than the 100-foot ordinary high water setback.

The Environmental Services Department learned the house and open loop system were in place over the winter and that discharge from the line was causing erosion issues as it drained into the lake. The Mehlhops received a letter notifying them of a violation of the Shoreland Management Ordinance.

The Environmental Services Department worried that the discharge could contain harmful minerals, French drains used to dissipate the discharge water can fail in a short time, requiring replacement.

Isaacson bristled at the suggestion, saying homeowners would seek redress from his company if that were to happen. He wouldn’t stay in business long, he pointed out. And he said the systems he is aware of don’t cause any soil or shoreline erosion.

“We went above and beyond due diligence,” Kerby said. “This is an unpermitted use that is allowed.”

Because the well and the discharge line encroached on the 100-foot setback, Environmental Services Officer Eric Buitenwerf, who consulted legal counsel about the variance, said Mehlhops’ system violated a section of the SMO.

“There’s some unknowns in this thing,” BOA chair Lou Schwindt said. “Our responsibility is to protect the lakes… If we’re dumping directly into the lake, I don’t know what long-range effect it’ll have.

A staff recommendation indicated the same.

“There are too many unknowns in regard to the impact such a volume of water (estimated at 780,516 gallons a year) with differing temperature and oxygen levels and composition would have on the lake, the staff recommendation advised.

“An Artesian well or spring would be allowed to flow into the lake,” Kerby disagreed. “The phosphorus concerns are undetectable” (in this system.)

“We’re doing something environmentally sound,” Kerby added. “The volume of water and usage is perfectly acceptable.”

He said every agency but Hubbard County had approved the system.

“We have to operate under current standards, not standards that might be in effect someday,” a frustrated Kerby said. The BOA can’t enforce codes that don’t yet exist, he said.

“The county says you can’t do it,” Schwindt replied. The board and EIS office interpreted the SMO as indicating it would not be allowable.

If there’s no rules specifying what is allowable or not, “the county can choose to be more restrictive,” Buitenwerf said.

The staff recommendations suggested a variety of ways the system could be brought into compliance, but none without additional expense. If the house, the well and discharge pipe were to stop at the 100 OHW mark and the discharges above ground didn’t cause erosion, such as being piped through a sprinkler system, that might be allowable.

“Where can we find a practical difficulty or hardship to justify doing this?” Schwindt questioned.

In the second case the BOA faced, the definition of a practical difficulty was stretched to include a laundry room and larger closets for year-round residents.

Seasonal resident Doug Scraper requested an after-the-fact variance on his Lake Belle Taine home for approval of a lakeside deck not mentioned in a 2006 variance. Scraper was seeking to add an additional 485 square feet onto the residence.

Scraper said his family would eventually be year-round residents and that with extended family using the space, “We are running out of room.”

The lack of a laundry room and small closets have together become a practical difficulty in using the home year-round.

The board granted the request along with sanctioning the deck built as an after-thought, Scraper apologized.

As he left the meeting, Scraper said, “This has been a real eye-opener to the difficulty of this job.”

BOA members quietly nodded.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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