A Harford County bill under consideration could cut the county's septic reserve requirement in half, down to a quarter of an acre.
Legislation was introduced to the Harford County Council Tuesday that would cut in half the county's current septic reserve requirement, which was used as a growth control measure for decades.
Councilman Chad Shrodes, the sponsor of Bill 14-10, and others were quick to say, however, the measure won't necessarily lead to more houses being built in areas not served by public sewer service but rather will give some existing landowners relief. They insisted it would not foster smaller sized building lots.
Shrodes called the current minimum 20,000-square-foot reserve requirement among the strictest in Maryland, as did a representative of a local engineering firm that does considerable work laying out developments.
Most of Shrodes' northern Harford County district does not have public sewage service. Shrodes said a smaller reserve requirement will make more room for improvements homeowners want to make on their properties, such as pools, and for any improvements they must get easements for, such as storm water management structures.
"I think it's a property rights issue and I'm trying to give something back to the landowner," he said after attending a Darlington Community Council meeting Wednesday .
"I am giving them more land if they want to build a pool, a shed, anything," Shrodes said in a follow-up interview Thursday.
State law changes
The councilman said the bill was prompted by a state law that now forces all septic systems to comply with "best available technology" requirements.
Until Jan. 1, older lots were exempt from the requirements, which could add as much as $11,000 to the cost of upgrading or maintaining a septic system, Shrodes said.
Harford is the only county in Maryland that has such a high septic size requirement, Kevin Barnaba, environmental health director for the Harford County Health Department said Thursday. Shrodes said Barnaba worked on the bill with him.
The county required even larger septic reserve areas, 40,000 square feet – one acre, until 2003, Barnaba said. He did not know why the law was changed to reduce the minium to 20,000 square feet.
With a 10,000 square foot minimum, Barnaba agreed with Shrodes that the county would simply be complying with state law and becoming consistent with the rest of the state.
"I wanted to get that into the local code so there is no confusion with local [septic] contractors," Barnaba said.
From a public health perspective, having septic areas of 10,000 square feet is fine, he said.
Shrodes said even the quarter-acre requirement is unnecessary, by modern public health requirements.
"Why have an extra requirement if you don't need it?" he said.
Shrodes also said he doesn't see how requiring a smaller reserve would drive more development.
"Really, you shouldn't control land use by septic or soil or whatever," he said. "The purpose and the idea behind this is not to increase development."
"I realized because I was a former planner that a lot of properties have these types of things on their lots that you cannot do anything with, and why are we indicating something [on a plat] that is twice as large as it needs to be?" added Shrodes, who worked for the county Department of Planning and Zoning prior to his election to the county council eight years ago.
The 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 best technology for removing nitrogen, among other requirements in the current law.
The legislation also spells out the details of what is required in a soil percolation test, requires a plumber or septic installer to give a site plan with various environmental aspects and requires appropriate disposal of waste from a water conditioning system.
Tory Pierce of Frederick Ward Associates in Bel Air, an engineering firm that does a lot of land planning and site development engineering in the county, agreed with Shrodes.
"Harford County, for years since the late 1970s or 1980s, has had the most restrictive septic reserve systems in the state," Pierce said.
"I would argue that it sounds like it is favorable with respect to land rights," Pierce said. "It helps the property owners, is what it helps."
Growth control issue
Farmers and other large landowners in the county, with the support of developers, have long tried to chip away at Harford's mid-1970s law that required homesites in rural areas to have minimum lot sizes of two acres, with 40,000 square feet, or one acre, set aside for each home's septic system plus three replacement areas.
The legislation was approved in the wake of numerous septic failures that were being encountered at homes built in the 1940s, 50s and 60s on lots as small as 10,000 square feet, which was the standard at the time.
Pete Gutwald, Harford County's planning and zoning director, said questions about the bill should be directed to Shrodes or Barnaba.
Gutwald noted Thursday that septic reserve areas fall under the Health Department's "section of the [county] code."
He also said the septic reserve requirement was changed from 40,000 square feet to 20,000 around the "early 2000s."
Morita Bruce, of Friends of Harford, a local land use advocacy group, said she had not seen the bill Thursday but it would make more sense to have different requirements for different parts of the county.
"It's very site-specific," she said.
She wondered if a septic size of just 10,000 feet would mean more flooding for certain areas, such as her neighborhood in Fallston.
"If there's going to be a very thorough investigation of what size makes sense... I would give it serious consideration," Bruce said.
Bruce, however, said she remains concerned about a requirement made several years ago that allowed a septic reserve to be on a different lot if it was owned by the same person.
She said she hopes the new bill would not allow options like that.
No change for lot size
Shrodes noted that certain areas with particularly poor soil still would be required to have a 20,000-square-foot septic reserve.
"If you have a slow-percolating soil, then you still may have the 20,000-square-foot area," he said.
The bill makes no changes to lot sizes, and Barnaba said he did not believe they were changed in 2003, either.
Robert Tibbs, the Harford County Farm Bureau liaison to the county council, said a change in minimum lot sizes could be a concern down the road.
"That is the part I am concerned about, is lot sizes," Tibbs said, noting he is fine with the legislation.
"Down the road this might come back to bite you," he said.
Aegis staff member David Anderson contributed to this story.