For several years, Carver County officials have been trying to force Lowell and Janet Carlson to replace the septic system at their Norwood-Young America farm, eventually threatening them with a jail sentence earlier this month if they did not comply.

It turns out, however, that the septic system the county approved and wanted the Carlsons to install in 2006 apparently would have been illegal, according to people the Carlsons brought in to help them replace the system.

As a result, the couple will have to install an even more costly mound system to keep themselves out of the Carver County jail.

"Isn't that something?" Janet Carlson said Thursday at the Carver County Courthouse, where county officials were trying to take control of the $10,000 the couple has in escrow to pay for their new septic system.

"I'm not surprised," Carver County Commissioner Tom Workman said of the apparent mistake in the county-approved replacement system. "That seems to be the way things work over there," he said of the county departments overseeing septic and environmental services.

County officials on Thursday defended the plan they approved in 2006 saying the Carlsons were putting the new system in a new location. "I don't believe it was in error," said Kim Jopp of the county Office of Environmental Services. "We're talking about two different designers, two different sites," she said. "Maybe the soil conditions have changed."

However, Bruce Schwichtenberg, a septic expert helping the Carlsons, didn't buy that explanation. He said the site was changed because the county-approved design would not have worked in the proposed location. Also, he said soil conditions wouldn't change so dramatically in three years.

Back to court

Workman, a supporter of the Carlsons and a vocal critic of the county's septic system policies, said he was surprised the county was taking the Carlsons to court again Thursday, even after they had agreed to replace their septic system.

"Today's hearing was another effort by the county to gain compliance," County Attorney James Keeler said in a statement. "The county ordinance allows property owners three years to bring failing systems into compliance. This process [with the Carlsons] has taken over six years."

The Carlsons finally agreed last week to install a new septic system rather than go to jail. A large factor in their decision to end their fight was the failing health of Lowell Carlson, 75. In fact, Janet Carlson, 69, said she had come to the courthouse on Thursday from the intensive care unit at St. Francis Regional Medical Center, where her husband was taken this week.

She said the couple has had the $10,000 in an escrow account for several years and planned to use it to pay for a new septic system.

On Wednesday, after returning home from visiting her husband in the hospital, she found a notice taped to her door ordering her to appear in court.

"You don't want to know some of the things I said," Carlson commented after the court allowed her and her husband to keep the money in the escrow account. "They just want to control everything."

The new system

Janet Carlson said she and her husband discovered the error in the 2006 replacement plans this week when they had county officials and workers at their farm to prepare to install the new system.

Instead, the couple got a nasty surprise when it became clear the county-approved system -- which was supposed to be installed at-grade --would be too close to the property's groundwater.

State law requires that a septic system be at least 36 inches above the groundwater level. As originally planned, the Carlsons' new county-approved septic system would have been about 29 inches above the groundwater, Schwichtenberg said.

"There wouldn't have been enough separation," he said.

That was confirmed by new ground borings taken Tuesday at the farm showing the underground water level was too close to the surface for an at-grade installation. So new plans had to be drawn up this week to elevate the system to comply with state law.

Schwichtenberg said the original design also was in an area that ran downhill, which would have made the at-grade system impossible to install.

"I wouldn't have put in that system," said Al Oldenthal, who was hired by the Carlsons to install their new system.

Heron Marquez Estrada • 612-673-4280