O'Malley bill to limit septic systems clears Senate

Gov. Martin O'Malley's bill to curb sprawl by limiting septic systems — a key piece of his legislative agenda — cleared the Maryland Senate Monday, albeit in a weakened form.

The measure aims to slow the pace of development of the state's farmlands, forests and other rural areas. It also would reduce pollution from septic systems into the Chesapeake Bay. Getting Senate approval for the legislation is a significant step for the governor, who wasn't able to get a similar bill out of committee last year. The measure goes now to the House of Delegates, where supporters are optimistic.

O'Malley initially sought a stronger bill that would let the state determine whether new developments could be built in rural areas. Last week he accepted a compromise supported by conservative Democrats and Republicans that keeps the final say on development in local hands.

"We are still achieving the public policy objectives," said Maryland Planning Secretary Richard E. Hall. "I still think the bill does what it sets out to do. … It is very much intact."

The view was not universal. "I don't think you can call it a huge step forward, but it is a halting step," said Sen. Brian Frosh, a Montgomery Democrat who fought on the Senate floor to keep the measure in its original form.

The bill, called the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act, passed 32 to 14, after Senate Republicans attempted a filibuster. The bill will next be considered by the House Environmental Matters Committee. Del. Maggie McIntosh, who chairs the panel, said she plans to make few — if any — changes.

The bill would require counties to divvy up their land into four development tiers, with different rules for septics in each. The first two tiers — urban areas and places where cities plan to expand — allow homes only on public sewer systems.

The fourth tier — wooded or farmlands — also would be off-limits to major developments on septic systems. The gray area comes in determining land in tier three, rural areas where there's already been some development and large new subdivisions on septics would be permitted under some circumstances.

Initially O'Malley wanted the state to have the final say about how the land would be categorized, an authority that previous governors have sought but failed to attain. O'Malley's attempt set off broad protests from conservative Democrats and Republicans who said it amounted to a state take-over of zoning decisions.

Now that the bill would leave the final say on land in local hands, liberal senators said they worry that a "rogue county" could designate large swaths of land in tier three, effectively allowing rural areas to be gobbled up by new homes. "The jury is still out about whether counties will comply with the spirit of the law," said Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat, after voting for it.

Administration officials stressed that the bill still gives the state the opportunity to register a protest if it disputes county designations. Planning officials say that tier three lands — rural villages, crossroads, and areas planned for large-lot residential development, among others — are carefully defined in the bill and noted that any county breaking the law could be hauled into court.

Environmental groups offered support. "It's still an important guide to the counties," said Jen Cancellieri-Brock, deputy director of the League of Conservation Voters.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland, said she had been monitoring the bill's progress from the Senate gallery for much of the past week.

"Some things are very strong in the bill, some things are very weak in the bill," she said. "It's not as strong as it was when it came in, but we believe it's moving the ball forward."

The Home Builders Association of Maryland, a pro-development group that has also been closely tracking the bill, withdrew its opposition. "It is a tough bill. This has been a really tough issue for us," said Katie Maloney, the group's top lobbyist.

"We were able to sit down with the administration and address our most critical concerns," Maloney said.

The compromise was brokered by Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton, a Southern Maryland Democrat who initially opposed the bill. He voted for it Tuesday, and warned that he'd be "hesitant" to support a stronger version should the House toughen the legislation.

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