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Plowing old ground

Laws and LegislationAgricultureEnvironmental PollutionKen UlmanMartin O'Malley

As "tractorcade" protests go, the demonstration of farmers and farm vehicles in Annapolis on Tuesday morning was a modest affair with a handful of old-fashioned tractors and some equally well-worn grievances. The timetable may have been a little off, too, since the protesters' collective ire was directed at a law that the General Assembly passed last year.

Nevertheless, the group of farmers assembled at the State House to support legislation that would repeal the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012 — or, as most people know it, Gov. Martin O'Malley's septics bill. The law seeks to limit future large-scale developments that rely on septic systems.

Why prohibit developers from building a lot of homes with septic tanks? First, because failing septic tanks are a significant source of water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, but perhaps most importantly, because such individualized treatment systems enable developers to build on rural land far from cities and towns. This kind of poorly planned, sprawl development is one of the greatest threats facing the bay and its tributaries, not to mention the future of Maryland agriculture as more and more farm land succumbs to bulldozers and shopping malls.

When the measure passed last spring, we hailed it as an important if small step in improving water quality but fretted that the enforcement authority granted the state was weak. Well, it seems that particular bit of fowl has come home to roost. For even as some opponents were protesting the septics law in Annapolis, others were simply thumbing their noses at it in county seats.

In Cecil and Frederick counties, for instance, it's clear that local government is minimally invested in agricultural preservation and unlikely to deny most any rural landowners the opportunity to turn their land into a subdivision. The Maryland Department of Planning last month notified the governing commissioners in both counties that their plans come up short. In Frederick, for instance, planning officials warned that the county's proposal would release 38,720 more pounds of nitrogen into the environment each year and result in the loss of thousands of acres of forests and farmland.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman recently issued the first veto of his six years in office when the County Council produced a septics ordinance that similarly failed to pass environmental muster. How did the council in such a progressive jurisdiction fail? Chiefly by unwisely capitulating to some farmers who were unhappy to be losing potential development rights — and the possibility that they could one day sell their land to commercial interests.

But here's the problem with that kind of let-them-build thinking. It's simply not in the public interest to offer up every bit of undeveloped rural land for a future housing tract. Not for taxpayers who can't afford it, not for agriculture that will get squeezed out, and certainly not for the environment and any hope of preserving clean air and water. What's needed is "smart" growth with more development steered toward cities and towns served by water and sewer systems, and where roads, schools and public transportation are already in place.

Some counties clearly don't like having a mandate imposed on them by state government, particularly when it comes to planning and zoning. But it's not as if all rural communities are up in arms. Many have recognized the importance of agricultural preservation, have followed the septics law faithfully and have taken steps to protect their open spaces.

What's particularly troubling about the protests is that the same counties that are failing to protect their land have also been drawn into those phony-baloney "war on rural counties" protests of recent years that see every State House decision as a threat. From lawsuits aimed at environmental initiatives to "forums" attacking climate change science, certain conservative Republicans appear to be banking on a populist, know-nothing message of victimization to win voter support.

They are likely to discover that Marylanders are not so gullible. Surveys have shown that most people living in this state support reasonable restrictions on growth, and that includes limiting septic systems. They also have a deep affection for the Chesapeake Bay and know that a business-as-usual approach is not enough to restore it. Assembling a dozen or so tractors for a spin around State Circle may land protesters on the evening news, but it doesn't change the fact that this state needs to preserve its shrinking inventory of rural land.

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