A conservation group is warning that many of Maryland's counties are skirting a new state law requiring them to rein in development of rural lands.
1000 Friends of Maryland says that more than a third of the state's 23 counties have done little or nothing so far to comply with the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012, which aims to restrict new housing on septic systems in rural areas.
"What we have are eight counties that are in the red zone," says Dru Schmidt-Perkins, the Friends executive director. "They are not doing what they need to do in order to preserve rural lands, and seven of those are high-growth counties, which is of concern."
Under the law enacted earlier this year, Maryland's counties and Baltimore city are supposed to map their growth plans, carving their territory up into four "tiers" that increasingly limit residential development on septic systems. The maps are due by the end of the year, if the counties want to continue permitting any significant construction on septics.
As a general rule, says Schmidt-Perkins, those counties that already limilt housing construction in rural or farming zones have drawn up maps that reinforce or extend that protection. Those with lax limits on residentiail development in those zones are "struggling," as she put it, to live up to the intent of the law. And some are clearly not even trying, she added.
"Perhaps the most stunning," Schmidt-Perkins said, is Charles County, where development threatens Mattawoman Creek, long considered one of the Chesapeake Bay's prime fish spawning waters. The county's planning commission recently rejected a draft map drawn up by the planning staff that would have tightened building limits on some rural lands. Instead, she said, the commission endorsed a map presented by "a developer group" that would allow large-lot development on septic systems over "virtually the entire county," with relatively little land set aside for protection from disturbance.
UPDATE: Candice Quinn Kelly, president of the Charles County commissioners, released a statement in response saying that the southern Maryland county on the fringe of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area already has experienced "tremendous growth." She said the county's elected commissioners are working to "strike the right balance between developing our urban areas and preserving our rural landscape."
Other "rogue counties," according to the Friends group, include Cecil, where Schmidt-Perkins said local officials have drawn up no fewer than 10 different maps, most of them encouraging rural development. Another is Queen Anne's County, she contended, where officials have declared they won't be drawing up a "tier" map outlining septic growth limits.
Maps aside, she said that 14 counties - more than half - are either considering or have already upped the number of homes that could be built on septic systems in rural areas. Counties that had limited "minor subdivisions" to as few as three homes have more than doubled the ceiling now to seven dwellings, a shift that Schmidt-Perkins contends could effectively double the number of homes that can be built in areas the law means to protect from low-density development.
"Many counties have thumbed their noses at the intent, the purpose of the law," said Schmidt-Perkins. "The problem is that we simply can't develop the way we've been. The consequences for Maryland are way too high."
Environmentalists and conservationists endorsed the growth legislation put in by Gov. Martin O'Malley. Supporters argued that nitrogen from septic systems is polluting local waters and the bay, while low-density development based on septics was consuming the state's remaining farmland and forests. Many rural officials objected to the law, though, contending that it would choke off growth in their counties and deprive landowners of theri property rights.
UPDATE: Leslie Knapp Jr., legal and policy counsel for the Maryland Association of Counties, said that counties generally are trying to follow the state law as they finalize their growth maps, though he acknowledged that local elected officials are "frustrated" by this and other mandates from Annapolis imposing costly environmental regulations and Chesapeake Bay restoration obligations on their communities.
Even if some counties do bend the growth law, he said, the end result will still be significant restrictions statewide on development using septic systems. And besides, he pointed out, the state is moving to require less polluting, more costly septic systems on all new construction wherever it is.
Schmidt-Perkins said she hoped that publicity about the counties' actions might prompt those skirting the law to change course before submitting their maps for state review by the end of December.
The group's report may be the only public pressure brought to bear. Andrew Ratner, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Planning, said state officials do not intend to take a public position on any of the counties' plans until the final maps are submitted.
However, state planning officials have weighed in "informally" on the developer-drafted map Charles County's planning commission has endorsed. In a letter to county officials, state planners point out that the map designates 88,000 acres of ecologically sensitive land for development , allowing hundreds of "major" residential subdivisiosn to be built using septic systems. Nine stream watersheds deemed "high-quality waters" by the state Department of the Environment also would get significant development under the plan, the letter points out. If built out, those developments could add tens of thousands of pounds of nitrogen to local waters and the bay, planners concluded.
There's not much recourse if counties ignore state planners or the law. Legislators decided that the Maryland Department of Planning may not order counties to make any changes to their maps. State officals can only order a public hearing be held if they deem a locality's plan in conflict with the spirit or letter of the law. In that way, advocates said, at least local officials will have to explain to their constituents why they're not being more restrictive on rural development.
Schmidt-Perkins, though, said that the lack of state enforcement in the law is "a big problem." If counties don't get in line with the law, she said, green groups may revive their call for holding sprawling localities "accountable" by cutting off state funding for roads, schools and other infrastructure and services that tend to degrade waterways and cost taxpayers more than when devleopment is more concentrated.
"The counties can't have it both ways," she said. "They can't have all the responsiblity and none of the accountability."
For the 1000 Friends report on each county, go here:
For more on the law, go here: http://www.mdp.state.md.us/OurWork/2012legislation.shtml
Here are links to some of the county maps:
Harford County: http://www.harfordcountymd.gov/PlanningZoning/Documents/641.pdf