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Titans clash on O'Malley's septics bill

A controversial part of Gov. Martin O'Malley's bill aimed at curbing sprawl in Maryland was gutted on the Senate floor Friday night, with conservative Democrats and Republicans joining forces to keep development decisions in local hands.

The legislation would have given the state broad authority to determine which pieces of land could have new houses and buildings -- and which parcels could not. But an amendment offered by Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton was adopted 32 to 13 and changed the bill so the counties retained the final say on where subdivisions can be built.

"You've seen vast tracts of Maryland farms and forests paved over," said Sen. Brian Frosh, who stood in support of the governor's original bill. He was joined on the Senate floor by a number of other liberal Democrats who typically support O'Malley's environmenatl agenda.

Middleton countered that the first draft of O'Malley's bill would have allowed "a state agency to come in" and make decisions even though it was "not accountable at all" to the locals. Middleton said his amendment had the governor's blessing. 

The debate had an unusual dynamic: It pitted two top Democrats -- both committee chairs -- against one another. Baltimore Sen. Bill Ferguson tweeted a colleague's comment that the floor debate was was the "clash of the titans."

The bill still needs final Senate approval, and then will move to the House of Delegates. Some believe the House will pass a stronger bill which would force a conference committee where differences can be worked out. In one scenario, the conference could produce a stronger version of the Senate bill.

Gov. Martin O'Malley said in an interview that as long as the final product "establishes some parameters" and "some minimum standards to prevent this acceleration" of sprawl, he would view it as "a positive move forward."

The bill still requires counties to put their land into one of four categories, with different growth restrictions on each. Environmentalists fear that some development-friendly counties will stick vast tracks of land in the permissive "tier three" category, where septic systems are allowed on farmlands.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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