Ready access to clean water for drinking, cooking and bathing is generally regarded as one of the advancements in human history that made civilization possible.
In modern times, places with no running water or indoor plumbing are regarded as rustic, if they are vacation destinations, or destitute if they are places people are more interested in getting away from than going to.
With this in mind, the measure before the Harford County Council that would reduce to a half acre the amount of land that needs to be on hand for new homes to be built without access to public water and sewer systems has the potential to become a step in the direction of becoming a Third World territory.
As is the case with many important issues, this one is both dull and complex. It suffices to say, however, that a quarter of an acre — 10,000 square feet – is regarded as the minimum amount of land needed for a functioning septic system to serve a home. More importantly, a well needs to be 100 feet from the septic system. At present, county law requires 10,000 square feet for the initial septic system, plus another 20,000 square feet for potentially two replacement systems, in anticipation of the others failing.
The county is considering reducing the set aside territory for replacement septic systems from 20,000 to 10,000 square feet.
The rationale is that advances in septic system technology have made new systems more resilient and less likely to fail, which is an argument with merit. Then again, technology isn't everything. The effectiveness of a septic system has as much or more to do with the surrounding geology and the soil it is in than the technology it uses.
Still, a local health department official says the reduced septic reserve requirement would put Harford County in line with the requirements obliged in the rest of Maryland.
Bill 14-10 requires all new residential building lots recorded to have at least 10,000 square feet for an initial sewage waste disposal system and requires new septic systems to use the best technology for removing nitrogen, among other requirements in the current law.
It is possible that a reduced septic reserve is perfectly reasonable from a residential water supply standpoint, but there's more at play in the discussion than just the matter of whether advanced technology can keep wells safe on smaller plots of land.
The main issue driving the change is development money.
In reducing the amount of land that must be held in reserve for replacement septic systems, the number of houses that can be built on a pasture far from public water and sewer service is substantially expanded. For example, if the old law would require one acre per house and the new law three quarters of an acre per house, the number of houses that could be built on 10 acres would be increased under the proposed new law from 10 to 13.
This reality wasn't lost on the sponsor of the bill before the Harford County Council. Councilman Chad Shrodes told Darlington Community Council last week: "I think it's a property rights issue and I'm trying to give something back to the landowner."
Though state law has relaxed with regard to health requirements for residential septic reserves, it is likely the same factors playing into Shrodes' Harford County legislation as the motivation behind the statewide change. Maryland's coastal plain is notorious for its problems with temperamental well and septic systems. Many a bayside community built to rely on well and septic systems has long since had to endure the expense of being retrofitted with public water and sewer service and the related special taxing district levies.
In light of this reality for substantial portions of the state, it seems rather foolish for the state to have enacted a law that decreases the level of caution associated with well and septic based residential development. Then again, residential land developers hold a lot of sway in the lobbies of the law-making buildings of Annapolis.
For Harford County to follow the state's lead on this is kind of like jumping into a cesspool because everyone else is doing it, but, given that developers hold a lot of sway in Harford County politics, there's every reason to believe that's exactly what's going to happen.