Fears for "tiers:" O'Malley septic bill worries greens

Gov. Martin O'Malley appealed to lawmakers Tuesday to adopt his "moderate" and "reasonable" proposal to curb development on septic systems, warning that unless sprawl is reined in the state's "Christmas future" would include loss of farmland and forests and a lifeless Chesapeake Bay.

As expected, his bill, SB236, has drawn flak from developers and some rural politicians who charge it would stifle growth and cripple local economies.  But it also ran into some criticism Tuesday before the Senate Education Health and Environmental Affairs Committe in Annapolis, where environmental activists and smart-growth supporters said the governor's legislation contains a major loophole that would allow continued growth on septic systems.

Sen. Ronald N. Young, a Democrat representing Frederick County who had been deputy state planning secretary when Smart Growth was first passed in the late 1990s, contended O'Malley's bill represents a step backward from the bill the governor failed to get passed last year. 

That measure would have banned any new major housing projects on septic systems, but it died in committee.  So O'Malley appointed a broad-based task force to wrestle with the issue, and it recommended a more flexible approach, with septic-based development essentially barred in remote farming areas or "tiers" but still permitted in or near municipalities and other designated growth areas. 

Young said it appeared the governor's bill, instead of curtailing housing projects relying on septics, would instead allow dozens of new subdivsisions with up to  10,000 homes on septic around Frederick city.

Others, including a representative of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the mayor of Vienna, a small Dorchester County town, said they shared similar concerns about the leeway county officials would still have under the bill to put farmland outside municipal boundaries into a "tier" that would permit septic-based development.

O'Malley countered that after getting blocked by rural opponents last year he was seeking what he called "a consensus bill" this year.  "The bill introduced last year was criticized as going too far," he said. "This bill is not intended to be a limitation on how much better county zoning could be. It's intended to be a guide and a floor."

The Maryland Association of Counties objects to the added authority the governor's bill would give to state agencies to scrutinize local development plans. In prepared testimony, Leslie Knapp Jr., the group's deputy director, said the seeming flexibility in the tiered approach might be negated by state officials second-guessing local decisions.  He said the powerful local government group would oppose the bill unless it is amended to address its concerns.

The bill drew support, though, from a pair of Eastern Shore small-town mayors, and from one farmer who's served in local government and says she's seen how ineffective it is at controlling sprawl.

Mayor Gee Williams of Berlin in Worcester County said that without curbs on septic development he fears the town's efforts to control its own growth and preserve farmland just beyond its borders could be undermined by sprawling low-density housing and stores.

"We know where Berlin begins and where it ends, and we want to keep it that way," he said.

Not every county official had problems with the governor's bill, either.  Candice Quinn Kelly, president of the Charles County commissioners, spoke up in favor of curbing septic-based development.  She said the bill would give her and her colleagues guidance and tools for charting future development in their fast-growing southern Maryland county.

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