Residents of southern Kent Island have wanted a public sewer system for decades, tired of frequent flooding that stirs a stench in their backyards and threatens their groundwater and the fragile Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.
But now that the state is chipping in at least $15 million to ensure that a sewer line is run down the largest island in the bay, some are worried about another consequence: The sewer project could allow more than 600 new homes to be built on the low-lying land at the foot of the Bay Bridge.
Gov. Larry Hogan's administration and Queen Anne's County officials say the $50 million sewer system will yield dividends in water quality improvements that outweigh any impact from new homes that sprout along the sewer connection. The prospect of a switch from septics may already be spurring a market for wooded lots that owners have been unable to build on or sell.
Chesapeake Bay advocates and some residents say the benefits aren't so clear-cut. They argue that Kent Island isn't the place to be adding new development — some of the empty lots are on the bay, vulnerable to rising sea levels. And they fear that more developers could one day petition for sewer access; at least one developer whose land was left out of the planned sewer district has already sued for a connection.
More than 1,500 existing homes on the southern end of Kent Island are slated for sewer service; each was built with a well for water service and a septic system to process waste. Development on the north end of the island, around Route 50, is already connected to sewers, while other corners of the island will remain on septic systems.
While helping rid Kent Island of septics, the Hogan administration is also relaxing statewide restrictions on new septic systems in areas farther from Chesapeake waters.
Both decisions ease hurdles to real estate development, raising questions from bay advocates whether the governor's past career in commercial real estate is influencing his policies.
"Governor Hogan is opening up the Eastern Shore to more sprawl-type development," said Jay Falstad, executive director of the Queen Anne's Conservation Association. "He is a developer; that's his background."
Hogan spokesman Douglass Mayer said the governor "has aggressively pursued and implemented measures designed to ensure the health of the Chesapeake Bay and "will continue doing everything possible to protect our state's most important natural asset."
Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said the Kent Island project and septic policy change are part of a broader strategy to balance water quality improvements with flexibility for "allowing local choices on how communities grow."
"There's always going to be legitimate questions about what might it lead to, in terms of impact and development," Grumbles said of the new Kent Island system. "From my perspective as an environmental regulator, it looks like a good choice."
The sewer project appeared doomed this summer when last-minute cost estimates came in nearly 30 percent higher than expected. That's when state officials stepped in to sweeten the aid promised to the county. The package includes a state-backed low-interest loan and millions of dollars in fees collected on sewer bills across the state for bay cleanup.
Queen Anne's County commissioners voted to accept the assistance and to charge residents $100 a month for 20 years for their share of the cost.
Work is scheduled to begin this fall.
Dru Schmidt-Perkins, CEO of 1,000 Friends of Maryland, a smart-growth advocacy organization, said the new sewer system is "far, far better" than failing septics. But she said it could still generate new pollution.
"Development matters," she said. "Having it in the right place matters."
While the northern end of Kent Island along Route 50 has seen more development in recent years, the southern end, which extends eight miles south of the highway, has remained relatively unchanged over the past 50 years. Most of the small lots were sold and waterfront bungalows built in the years after the Bay Bridge opened in 1952.
Septic systems collect waste in tanks that separate liquids from solids; the liquids are dispersed underground where insects and soil microbes process any harmful bacteria or viruses.
But on an island that is inches above sea level, septic systems are less than ideal. They can't process waste if soil is saturated with water, and with frequent flooding and groundwater at shallow depths, that means many systems are considered to be failing, county officials said.
The problem has persisted for decades, allowing harmful bacteria and tens of thousands of pounds of nutrients such as nitrogen to spill into the bay and leach into groundwater.
About five years ago, county officials dug into yards across the southern end of the island to confirm what decades' worth of data had suggested — that about 80 percent of septic systems there aren't properly filtering waste.
"They're putting the sewage into the groundwater," said John Nickerson, the county's director of environmental health services.
Baltimore native Tricia Krahling said she was surprised to find the island lacked public water and sewer service when she and her husband moved in the early 1990s, and she was never comfortable with it.
When the Howard County teacher returns to her home in the Romancoke by the Bay community each day, the stink of sewage sometimes greets her, she said. She said when it rains, she can see — and smell — the puddles forming in some yards.
"I worry about it every time we flood, because it's disgusting," she said.
Statewide, failing septic systems send nearly 3 million pounds of nitrogen into the bay each year, about 6 percent of all the nitrogen that flows into the estuary. The state's goal is to reduce that to 2.3 million pounds by next year because nitrogen fertilizes algae blooms, which block sunlight and reduce oxygen levels, sometimes causing mass fish kills.
Grumbles said while septic systems aren't the biggest hurdle to the Chesapeake's cleanup — more than five times as much nitrogen washes into the bay from farms — extending sewer service on Kent Island should have a significant impact on local water quality.
Some residents are eager to not only eliminate the sewage stench and health risks from backups, but also the difficulty of selling homes with problematic septic systems.
"Nobody has died, but there is no question that septic effluent rising to the surface in a backyard that is played in by dogs and kids and adults isn't healthy," said Dick Sells, a Kent Island real estate agent who is in favor of the sewer project.
He and others are hoping that taking out the septic tanks will lead to an uptick in the real estate business.
Randy Dare has lived in the Kent Island Estates neighborhood for almost 30 years. He also owns empty land a few blocks away, where he hopes to build homes for his two children, now teenagers, once they are grown. The sewer connection could make that a reality.
He is among many landowners who have been unable to build homes, either because their yards are too small to fit septic drainage systems or because the septic systems would be too close to the water, in violation of environmental regulations. The lots have for decades remained isolated patches of thick forest in between homes.
"There's people who have been waiting 50 or 60 years and paying taxes on their properties and not able to do anything with them," Dare said. "This is a great thing, cleaning up the bay and getting people to improve their property."
Colleen Minahan, another island real estate agent, said many lot owners are pulling their listings, anticipating the possibility that their properties could skyrocket in value.
Still, despite the known problems of the septic systems, the potential growth from development is worrisome to those who fear unintended consequences of a switch to sewer.
"You could have a situation where the benefit of taking existing systems offline is outweighed by additional development spurred by the line," said Erik Fisher, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Maryland land use planner. "That's something the state needs to look very carefully at before deciding whether to fund one of these projects."
County officials have worked to heed concerns over growth.
The county commissioners passed an ordinance in 2013 requiring owners of small adjoining lots to combine them, meaning there can only be one house where there might otherwise have been two squeezed onto tiny yards.
In addition, the number of new connections beyond already existing homes is capped at 632 as part of the financing agreement the county signed with the Maryland Department of the Environment to fund the project. Builders of new homes also must pay a steep, unsubsidized sewer connection fee — about $25,000.
State officials said they don't expect additional connections beyond the cap, because the system is not being designed to handle any significant change in usage in the future.
That doesn't mean landowners won't try. Kent Island resident and developer Kevin Quinn sued in 2014 over being left out of the planned sewer district. Though a federal judge dismissed the case last year, Quinn appealed the ruling in July.
"I can't tell you today there will never ever be another property connected to it," said Virginia Kearney, deputy director of the state environment department's water management division. But any request would face intense public scrutiny, "and it would not be an easy process," she said.
Development has long been a concern on the island. On the northern end, a years-long fight over the 1,100-unit Four Seasons housing development is still being waged. Under former Gov. Martin O'Malley, the state twice rejected New Jersey home builder K. Hovnanian's applications for a stormwater permit for the project, but the Board of Public Works approved it last year.
On southern Kent Island, development is expected to be more piecemeal and gradual. Though 632 new homes are allowed to connect to the sewer, county officials estimate only 580 of the lots could feasibly be built upon.
Nonetheless, environmentalists worry about the impact of the Hogan administration's policies.
Just as development on Kent Island could weaken or counteract the benefits of removing septic systems, a laxer approach to septic systems across the state could set back progress toward larger Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals, said Fisher, of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
"There's already too much pollution moving into the bay," Fisher said. "Right now as new pollution gets added ... that responsibility falls on the public."
Hogan announced in August that he would roll back a requirement that all new septic systems use the best available technology to remove nitrogen from the waste, an expense home builders had protested. Instead, the technology will only be required within 1,000 feet of the bay.
"Smarter means a more balanced approach," Grumbles said of the decision. "Let's focus on the watershed and not have an across-the-board, one-size-fits-all approach."
Kent Island residents have heard all the arguments over a new sewer system for years. It's become such a polarizing issue, some still wonder if the county will actually move forward.
"From the moment we moved in, we had people coming in with petitions saying this was coming," with some calling on residents to demand sewer service and others urging them to reject it, Krahling said.
"I'll believe it when I see it."
Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.