State, local officials parry over septics -- Gazette.Net


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State officials are looking at ways to push local governments to restrict housing developments dependent on septic systems, as many local leaders have balked at drawing maps limiting where the homes can be built.

Each of Maryland's 23 counties, Baltimore city and 110 other municipalities are required to assign land a “tier” classification indicating conservation areas where major subdivisions are prohibited, where sewer systems must be used and where septic systems may be used.

But only about half — 11 counties, Baltimore and 61 incorporated cities and towns — have adopted tier maps. As of Dec. 31, unless the local government has adopted such a map, it cannot approve a subdivision of more than seven units served by septic systems, under the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012.

Furthermore, some of the maps are “problematic,” so the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley is considering its options to get governments to comply, said Jason Dubow, environmental planning director for the Maryland Department of Planning.

Both carrots and sticks are being considered, including programs and funding sources, Planning Secretary Richard E. Hall said Thursday.

Options for taking the counties to court also are being examined, including whether the governor could have the attorney general sue, or the state might join as a plaintiff if an advocacy group sued, Hall said.

New legislation might be filed, “but I don't think there's a lot of appetite for that,” Hall said. “What I most hope happens is we work with the counties to come up with a map we can live with.”

Hall said his agency managed to “talk through” problems it had with the early maps of several counties before arriving at “not the map we would have drawn but ... a map that made sense.”

According to a planning department report issued Feb. 1, most tier maps met state criteria, “but two county tier maps (Cecil County, Frederick County) clearly violated provisions in the statute.”

According to the report, Frederick County's map makes way for more than 1,600 homes on septic systems and the loss of more than 3,300 acres of farmland than would have been the case if the map conformed to the law.

More than 30 percent of those residential lots with septic systems would be areas identified as the most ecologically valuable in Maryland, the report said.

Frederick County Commissioner Blaine Young (R) says his county is in compliance and that the state is complaining about action county commissioners took to restore property rights taken from landowners by a previous “anti-growth” commission.

“Their attitude is the only way you can be in compliance is if you submit a map the way they want you to submit it,” Young said.

Frederick, Cecil and Allegany counties will have to hold public hearings because state planning officials found enough fault to issue formal comments.

Young said Feb. 6 that Frederick has not set the hearing date, but he doesn't mind that requirement.

“They wanted all this done administratively, which would have meant people wouldn't have a public hearing,” Young said.

Cecil County, which has set its public hearing for Feb. 19, could get more than 3,200 additional houses with septic systems, under its map, than if the county had conformed to state law. It also could lose 6,500 acres of farm and forest land and add nearly 75,000 pounds of polluting nitrogen from stormwater and septics, according to the report.

Cecil Planning Director Eric Sennstrom said he does not believe that would happen.

“Being in Tier III [which allows septic systems] doesn't mean every inch of green is going to be paved over or become impervious surface,” Sennstrom said.

With no more than one house per 10 acres allowed in rural northern Cecil and just one house per 20 acres in rural southern Cecil, development is compatible with farming and woodlands there, he said.

mhyslop@gazette.net