A bill that relaxes a regulation on private sewage disposal systems, or septic systems, used by residences and businesses in areas that don’t have public sewer service was approved last week by the Harford County Council.
The council also recently enacted legislation that relaxes some existing regulations governing sediment controls at construction sites and the length of time developers have to complete their projects before being required to renew their county permit.
Both bills were passed at the most recent council meeting on Oct. 10. Councilman Joe Woods, an employee of FEMA, who has been deployed to Florida for Hurricane Irma recovery efforts, was not at the meeting for the votes on Bill 17-013, pertaining to septic systems, and Bill 17-014, pertaining to sediment controls.
Woods is the sponsor of Bill 17-013, which allows commercial and residential property owners to build structures within septic reserve areas, which are sections of their property set aside for expanding a septic system or building a new drain field if their system begins to fail.
The Harford County Health Department could grant a waiver for structures such as driveways, parking areas, outbuildings or additions to existing structures as long as property owners ensure their existing systems work properly and they have met all county and state requirements, the agency’s environmental health director explained during a public hearing in late September.
The bill, one of a handful enacted since 2014 to curb county regulations on septic systems, passed 5-1 with Councilman Chad Shrodes casting the lone negative vote.
Shrodes said he supports waivers for commercial properties, but he is concerned residential property owners might not be able to absorb the costs of having to demolish a structure to repair a failing septic system.
Plus, someone who purchases that property might not know the previous owner built on top of their septic system, he said.
“I believe that commercial property owners may have more of the financial means to deal with potential repairs, and they may know more about their property than possibly a homeowner,” Shrodes said.
Shrodes has sponsored legislation adopted in prior years that decreased the required minimum septic reserve area — it has shrunk in recent years from 40,000 square feet, or one acre, to 10,000 square feet.
He acknowledged his support of reducing the reserve area, in that it gives homeowners the ability to use more space on their properties.
“This would further constrain properties,” he said of Bill 17-013.
Council President Richard Slutzky and Councilman Mike Perrone said property owners should recognize they are taking a risk when building over a septic area, and that the cost of repairs is their responsibility.
Slutzky said such conditions should be disclosed as part of the process of selling a property.
Perrone said his key concern was whether soil could “perc,” or absorb wastewater discharge, if a structure were built on top, and “based on the research I’ve done, I don’t think it does.”
“If this bill doesn’t increase the likelihood that pollution would spread beyond the property line, then I think it’s OK,” Perrone said.
A significant area of northern and western Harford County does not have public sewer service.
Sediment control bill
Bill 17-014 adjusts Harford County’s regulations governing sediment control on construction sites, so they are in line with state regulations, according to the administration of Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, sponsor of the legislation.
The bill passed, 5-1, with Perrone casting the negative vote.
Adjustments include removing the maximum 20-acre requirement for the size of a grading unit, meaning grading is not limited to one section of a site at a time, as well as ending the requirement that grading areas be inspected an average of every two weeks.
The sites must still be inspected and will, administration representatives testified at the bill’s public hearing, just not according to a mandated timetable.
Under another section of the legislation, erosion and sediment control plans issued by the county will be valid for three years instead of two.
Perrone acknowledged stricter regulations make the cost of building, and then purchasing or renting, a house more expensive.
“All that having been said, I can’t support a bill that both allows developers to grade more acreage at once and simultaneously commits the county to a lower standard when it comes to inspections,” he said.
He held up a photo of sediment collecting in the Foster Branch stream in Joppa, which he said happens every time there is a hard rain.
“When I think of legislation that relaxes restrictions on sediment control, I think of this,” Perrone said.
Councilman Patrick Vincenti expressed his thanks to Joseph Seimek, the county’s public works director, and others who have spoken with him and allowed him to visit building sites in recent weeks regarding the legislation.
“I truly believe that, if this bill proves not to be in the best interest of Harford County, then we can revisit another time,” Vincenti said.