Few realize the dire consequences of a key decision made by Carroll County Planning officials during development of the 2018 Freedom Community Comprehensive Plan. Many have written to express concerns including overcrowded schools, increased traffic, and to oppose rezoning of undeveloped parcels to higher densities for development. Unfortunately, many don’t know the primary reason why efforts to rezone to more intense land use seem to have spiraled out of control.
It is tied to sewer infrastructure. Rather than shrink the designated growth area to fit sewer capacity, in 2016, the planning department used a new category (“long range”) for public sewer allocation. I was told that “long range” means not in our lifetime, since future expansion of the sewer plant in the Freedom area is unlikely. Rather than using this category for undeveloped properties planned for future development, the county used this category for older houses with small lots on well and septic. This allowed for reallocation of capacity to maximize future development in this area, while leaving existing homeowners on their own to deal with septic problems. By eliminating this constraint, the county has encouraged continued over-development of this area to the detriment of many longtime residents in the Freedom community. Without this change, undeveloped parcels not planned for sewer would be limited to residential subdivisions on septic with no more than seven lots.
Prior to adoption of the 2018 Freedom plan, my property and over 900 others were mapped as priority areas for sewer connection. Once the plan was adopted, all of these properties were reclassified as “long range.” Previously, I would have preferred to remain on septic and avoid connection fees; however, an unforeseen septic issue in 2018 changed my mind.
Our septic system failed inspection during the sale of our home by the same company that passed it 16 years earlier and maintained it. No one told us in 2014 our type of system was deemed “unacceptable” by the septic industry for property transfer. We planned to fix it and contacted the Health Department. They told us our property was in a planned sewer area and we needed three bids to connect to public sewer. Our home was built in 1950 and sewer lines were extended into our neighborhood. The county had planned to connect our house, as they have other older houses in the Freedom area over the years.
Since our total costs to connect exceeded $60,000, the county allowed us to fix our septic. However, our system didn’t meet current standards, so they required total replacement and a percolation test. If we failed the percolation test, we could not retest. During this time, Maryland had historic rainfall and many septic systems were truly failing, some with newer systems in our neighborhood. We were told by Health Department staff that ground water levels were abnormally high. Since our lot was small, with nearby wells, we would be required to request a variance and install a Best Available Technology (BAT) tank. Also, if we failed the percolation test due to soils or groundwater, we would need an above ground system. This could cost over $50,000.
During this time, we were told that our property had been reclassified from priority to “long range” for sewer connection in accordance with the adopted 2018 Freedom plan. I question this decision, especially when systems failures and replacement costs are increasing. I learned that these properties were in the priority areas for sewer for over 40 years. For this reason, this area was excluded from previous studies and public outreach to gauge interest in sewer connection by the county. Most property owners do not realize the difficulties of replacing their system until it fails. In addition, septic oversight has increased in recent years and is expected to continue as federal mandates force Maryland to improve water quality.
I implore the Carroll County commissioners to revisit this short-sighted decision and adopt amendments to the 2018 Freedom plan accordingly. This will ensure that sound planning decisions are made within the plan’s time horizon (30 years). In addition, I hope that the County will reach out to property owners with older houses on septic within the Freedom area to inform them of their options.
Jo Ann Grundy writes from Sykesville/Eldersburg.
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