John Bobb has been holding on to 21 woodland acres just outside New Albany for 30 years as a retirement investment.
Three years ago, he decided it was time to cash in. He had a buyer for $400,000, and plans had been drawn up for a house. Then, everything fell apart.
"They said I'd just have to sit on the property and forget it," Bobb said. "And it's going to affect when I can retire by 10 years."
Across the street, Joseph Dandrea also is stuck with a property, one he bought in the 1990s as a potential place to retire that he now wants to unload.
The Franklin County Board of Health has told both men that their properties don't meet the soil and water conditions for installing a traditional septic system.
Much of Ohio has a high water table, making traditional systems likely to fail. Human waste could flow into streams and infiltrate the groundwater from which homeowners are pumping their drinking water.
The state tightened regulations for septic systems in 2007 but then backed off because of a backlash from property owners, but Franklin County and several other governments in the area adopted the stricter rules.
A Plain Township zoning law that takes effect Oct. 15 will make it illegal to build a house in the township on less than 2.5 acres. Township Administrator Ben Collins said one of the goals is to stop speculators from thinking they can build subdivisions on small, soggy plots where they're unlikely to get permission for a septic system.
Franklin County requires the water table to be at least 12 inches below ground if someone wants to build in an area without city sewer and water service. Dandrea said that on his property, the water table is 11 inches below ground.
The county can grant a variance if the developer provides detailed plans for an approved septic system.
Such systems can run about $20,000, plus the cost of a lifetime service contract, compared with $5,000 to $8,500 for a more-traditional septic system. The developer also must explain a hardship that would result without a variance.
"Because you buy a piece of ground and didn't do your due diligence to research it, that's not a hardship," said Jim Lynch, an inspector for the Franklin County Board of Health.
Many of the people buying land near New Albany are out-of-town speculators who don't bother to call the county health board and ask why a property is for sale at $10,000 an acre in an area where most land goes for $50,000 an acre, Lynch said.
But he said he feels bad for people who inherited land or bought it long before the stricter regulations went into effect.
"You're trying to protect public health, but you're also telling people not to develop a lot when that is their livelihood or retirement," he said.
Even professionals have been frustrated by the rules.
William Fannin Jr., vice president of William Fannin Builders, said he lost a $1.5million house deal because of the regulations.
"Here I am trying to do whatever I can, and the family is getting emotional because this is their dream," Fannin said, "and the county is standing between me and work."
Fannin estimated he put in 50 hours working on designs and talking to soil engineers.
But Lynch said the land wasn't fit for any kind of septic system yet invented.
"It was heartbreaking seeing that family standing out in that field crying," Lynch said. "We spent hours in that field and on the phone, but we have rules for good reasons, and we have to follow them."