The Harford County Health Department has thrown its support behind legislation before the County Council that would allow structures and parking facilities to be built in septic reserve areas, something that has long been prohibited, an official with the department said.
Property owners could install swimming pools, erect outbuildings, construct driveways or add on to existing buildings in the reserve area, provided they can show the health department their septic systems would still work properly.
"We have looked at the impact to public health, the environment, and in certain situations we feel that it would be OK for a waiver to be given and to allow paving over a system and their future repair areas," Julie Mackert, director of environmental health, said during a public hearing on Bill 17-013 Tuesday evening.
The bill is sponsored by Councilman Joe Woods, who represents the Fallston area. He could not attend Tuesday's meeting, and his legislative aide, Jessica Blake, presented the bill to the council.
Waivers for driveways, parking areas, swimming pools, sheds and other outbuildings and additions to existing buildings could be granted as long as the property owner has met county and state requirements, Blake said.
"This bill is a business and private property rights-friendly bill," Blake said.
In the 1970s, Harford County, which has areas with long histories of failing septic systems, tightened up its regulations on septic reserve area size and banned placing permanent structures in the reserve.
In recent years, however, succeeding county administrations and county councils have relaxed many of those earlier rules, with proponents saying many such rules infringed on property rights.
Mackert, who was asked by Councilman Chad Shrodes to speak on the bill, said before issuing a waiver, inspectors would ensure a septic system works properly. There also could be requirements, depending on the property, that the owner must install a backup system or pre-treat the waste entering the existing system, she said.
Mackert said having a backup system would "eliminate the problem of removing the driveway or pavement in the near future," if any septic system issues happen under paved areas.
Councilmen Mike Perrone and Jim McMahan expressed concerns about a property owner having to dig up their pavement to fix problems with their system.
"It will be the property owner's risk and or expense to fix if their septic system fails, or they need to redo anything or if they have a performance issue," Blake said.
Shrodes said the septic reserve area — a section of the property reserved for expanding the initial system or building a replacement drain field — is separate from the pipes and equipment that make up the actual septic system.
"To me, it's really kind of two different things," he said.
Harford's required minimum septic reserve area has been reduced in recent years from 40,000 to 10,000 square feet. An acre is 40,000 square feet.
Etien Bregasi, whose family owns the Acappella Italian Restaurant in Fallston, urged council members to support the bill.
"We believe that this bill will support small family-owned businesses to help them grow within the community," Bregasi said.
He said a waiver would allow the restaurant to expand its parking lot so more people could visit and patrons and staff would not have to park at the Rite Aid across the street.
Acappella is on Pleasantville Road near the intersection with Route 152 where there is also a 7-Eleven with gasoline pumps, a small strip shopping center with a restaurant and a third restaurant nearby. All are on private wells and septic systems, as is most of Fallston except for the Route 1 commercial area that has public water and sewer.
"Please, we'd appreciate it if everyone would join us in supporting this bill," Bregasi said.
Three members people spoke during a hearing Tuesday on Bill 17-014, which adjusts county codes on controlling sediment runoff from construction sites so they are in line with changes made to state regulations on sediment control.
"It's really a housekeeping bill at this point in time, and I thank the county executive for sending it across to the council and I urge your support," said Bel Air attorney Joseph Snee, who represents several local developers.
The bill changes the definition of a grading unit, currently limited to 20 acres or fewer, to "the maximum contiguous area allowed to be graded at a given time," essentially allowing such work to go on without being restricted to a set area on a construction site.
The legislation also increases the time, from two years to three years, that a developers' erosion and sediment control plans remain valid, and it removes a requirement that grading areas be inspected, on average, every two weeks.
"It allows the Harford County code to be in sync and to comply with what the Maryland Department of the Environment has already done to their state [regulations] with regard to sediment control," County Attorney Melissa Lambert told council members.
She said the state-level changes are part of Gov. Larry Hogan's efforts to reform state regulations.
Perrone was concerned the changes might make it harder for inspectors to "keep up." Lambert said she spoke with Public Works Director Joseph Siemek, whose agency approves grading permits, and Siemek conveyed support for the bill.
"This will allow us to put more inspectors in areas where they're needed," said Councilman Patrick Vincenti, who noted he also spoke with Siemek about the bill.
Bel Air resident John Mallamo took issue with the term "housekeeping bill."
"Every time I hear 'housekeeping bill,' it's a dog whistle," Mallamo said. "It reminds me that it's for someone."
Mallamo acknowledged the governor's regulatory changes "make some sense," but he expressed concerns about containing runoff on flat graded land, and how construction site neighbors could be flooded during periods of heavy rain.
"I'd appreciate it if you just say, 'No,' and leave it as it is," he said.
Don Sample, a Bel Air-based homebuilder, said responsible builders and developers establish "perimeter erosion and sediment controls" before they proceed with grading.
"We control 100 percent of the rainfall that lands on the sites, and our designs account for all of the water that drains from higher properties toward our sites," he said.
Sample said he has been developing a community on a 120-acre site in Harford County since 2014.
"We could have saved thousands of dollars for every homeowner, had we not been constrained by this 20-acres [grading unit] limit," he said, noting "it's an appropriate thing to repeal" current regulations.