Legislation to overhaul how the county regulates private waste disposal systems is scheduled for a public hearing Tuesday, amid concerns from some officials and community members that the changes could make it easier to develop septic-served properties more densely.
The bill is primarily a housekeeping measure to bring county regulations into line with state law and acceptable installation practices, said Susan Kelly, environmental health director for the county's Health Department.
But the legislation also calls for halving the amount of space required on a lot for septic system disposal, also called the septic reserve area, from 40,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet, sparking worries that the bill could have long-term development implications.
"The biggest problem anybody has [with the bill] is the reduction of the septic field," said Council President Robert S. Wagner, adding that he and several council members are concerned about the legislation. "It starts facilitating other possibilities. That's what the fear is."
Zoning law would prevent such abuses from happening, said the bill's sponsor, Council Member Lance C. Miller, a Republican who represents the northern rural area of Harford County. In agricultural areas, where septic systems are primarily used, zoning allows one house per 10 acres.
Miller said that the septic field size reduction would allow for more clustering of homes, and that the original square footage requirement, set into law in the 1970s, was outdated and detrimental because it requires larger lot sizes that eat up farmland unnecessarily.
The remaining land could be preserved as open space or farmed, he said.
"This does not change the number of [development] rights," he said. "Is it better to put 10 houses on 60 acres or 10 on 30? I think 10 on 30."
With the county less than a year from comprehensive rezoning, however, when landowners can ask to bump up zoning to higher-density designations, some residents say they can't rely on Miller's zoning argument.
Michael Comeau, vice president of the Jarrettsville-Norrisville Community Council, who ran against Miller for County Council in last fall's election, said Miller came to meet with the group and gave "a very complete presentation.
"But I just don't think we're buying it," Comeau said.
He said his neighbors wonder what happens to the rest of the land after a cluster of homes is built on half of it - what would stop a landowner or developer from requesting rezoning and then clustering homes on the other half of the land?
"Multiple clusters, that's the fear," Comeau said.
Judy Blomquist, president of Friends of Harford, a group concerned with quality-of-life issues in the county, said she feels that the smaller septic field size is inappropriate, because some soils in the county are better able to handle septic systems than others.
She pointed out that the original 40,000-square-foot field size was established because systems in some parts of the county were failing.
"I don't think the law would provide adequate protection for the entire county," Blomquist said.
But Kelly of the Health Department, who was part of a nine-member task force that studied the county's septic law for about a year, pointed out that the smaller reserve area would allow property owners more flexibility in adding decks, pools and outbuildings. And, she said, the reserve field size is well above the state's 10,000- square-foot minimum field requirement.
"The Health Department has recognized for a long time that 40,000 square feet is excessive in most cases," Kelly said, adding that whether the council chooses to keep that reserve area, or reduce it, citizens' interests will be served.
"We're protecting public health and the environment whether we're at 40,000 or 20,000," she said.
The public meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the County Council chambers, 212 S. Bond St. Information: 410- 638-3343.