Governor presses septic development curb

Staking out one of his legislative priorities in this year's General Assembly, Gov. Martin O'Malley argued Monday that rural development using septic systems needs to be curtailed to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay and to preserve the state's remaining farmland from suburban sprawl.

O'Malley joined with environmental activists and green-leaning lawmakers to defend the bill he has introduced, which would ban any new major housing projects on septic. It also would require less-polluting but more costly septic systems on smaller housing developments or individual homes not affected by the ban.

The governor said he wanted to end a "proliferation" of new housing on septic systems, which allow up to 10 times as much water-fouling nitrogen to leach into streams per household as do homes hooked up to public sewage treatment plants. Though septics are responsible for just 8 percent of the nitrogen harming the Chesapeake Bay now, officials say that share could grow by a third if unchecked.

The bill would require any housing project of five or more homes to either hook up to a public sewer system or be served by a shared waste treatment system that is approved and monitored by local and state government. Smaller developments or individual homes could still be built on septic, but would have to use higher-quality systems that remove more nitrogen — and which cost about $12,000 more than a standard septic system.

Del. Stephen W. Lafferty, a Baltimore County Democrat co-sponsoring the bill, said housing developments that have not been built but have local zoning approval would be "grandfathered" from the new restrictions. Officials could not say how many homes are in the planning pipeline.

The governor's proposed crackdown on septic development has angered builders and rural lawmakers. Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a Republican representing the upper Eastern Shore, attended O'Malley's news conference and later sharply criticized his bill as a "power grab" by the state of local growth oversight. Pipkin said it would effectively halt development in rural areas and crush their economies.

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