Baltimore Sun

Septic limits a "war" on rural Maryland?

Is Gov. Martin O'Malley waging "war on rural Maryland" by calling for curbs on building new homes on  septic systems?  That's what a pair of Eastern Shore legislators contend.  Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore, and Del. Michael Smigiel, R-Cecil, have accused him of trying a "power grab" to wrest control over land use from local offiicals.  They've even set up a website to that effect.

Rural folks being picked on by city dwellers and suburbanites: That's a familiar rallying cry in the seemingly endless struggle in this state over cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, and over how - or even whether - to curb sprawl.


But in this case, where are the most septic tanks in Maryland?  The Baltimore metropolitan area, it seems. According to data supplied by the Maryland Department of Planning, the four counties with the highest number of homes on septic are: Anne Arundel, with 43,733; followed by Baltimore County, with 37,772; Carroll, with 31,061 and Harford, with 28,070.

In a way, that's not terribly surprising, since the metro areas are where the most people are, and there are portions of every county in the state not served by public water or sewer.

Of course, if you look at which counties have the highest percentage of homes on septic, it is mostly - but not exclusively - rural. Calvert County is tops, with a whopping 84 percent, according to state planning data, followed by St. Mary's County, with 70 percent, and then the Eastern Shore counties of Caroline and Wicomico (both 68 percent), Cecil (61 percent) and Carroll (59 percent).   But in some rural counties, like Allegany, Washington, Kent, Talbot and Worcester, homes with septic are in the minority.  Not such a clear divide.


To see all the data and map for yourself, go here.  Click on the + or - buttons at the bottom of the frame to zoom in so you can read the numbers and county names.

(One oddball footnote:  The state's map shows no septic tanks in Baltimore city, but in a followup email, planners report that there are about 5,000 there serving homes and nonresidential properties.  City public works officials say that only heavily industrial Hawkins Point isn't served by public sewer, and they couldn't confirm the state's figure or where those septic tanks might be.)

Of course, the bills in Annapolis are about limiting or changing the use of septics in future growth.  So where are the most homes on septic likely to be built in years to come?   Based on current zoning and planned sewer service, Carroll and Frederick are expected to add the most - 10,000 or more homes on septics each - by 2035, state planners project.   Next, they foresee 5,000 to 10,000 septic-served homes each going up in Washington, Harford, Cecil, Montgomery, Anne Arundel, Prince George's, Charles and St. Mary's.

Somewhere between 1,500 and 5,000 new homes on septic are forecast for each of these counties - Garrett, Howard, Baltimore, Calvert, Queen Anne's, Caroline, Wicomico and Worcester.  Lastly, Allegany, Kent, Talbot, Dorchester and Somerset counties - and almost entirely sewered Baltimore city - are expected to add the fewest septic systems, somewhere between none and 1,500 each over the next 25 years.

So when it comes to talking about changing or limiting development on septic systems, it's not so clear that rural counties would be most affected.  Maybe the Shore legislators want to amend the title of their website to: The War on Suburban and some of Rural Maryland?

(Map: Maryland Department of Planning.Baltimore Sun photo: Septic tank going in at Baltimore County home site, by Kim Hairston.)