Planning Secretary Requests Charles County to Reconsider Septic Tier Map

April 1, 2014

As previously reported on Conduit Street, Charles County recently approved a septic tier map different from that recommended by a work group assembled for the task.  The approved plan includes half of an  18,000-acre deferred development district in the Mattawoman Creek watershed in a tier allowing future growth on septic systems.  A March 27 article reported that Maryland Secretary of Planning Richard Hall has sent a letter to the County Commissioners recommending that they reconsider the inclusion of the 9,000 acres.

In his letter, Hall called the plan “a significant improvement” over the map drawn by the pro-growth Balanced Growth Initiative and approved by the Charles County Planning Commission in November 2012, but he wrote that the 9,000-acre tract was unnecessary to meet the county’s growth projections and potentially would harm the Mattawoman. …

Hall noted in his letter that the county has more than twice the land zoned for development needed to meet its growth needs by 2040. More than 62,000 acres are mapped with current or future sewer areas on the approved plan, more than that total area of either Washington, D.C., or Baltimore, both of which have populations more than four times that of Charles County, he wrote.  …

In addition, “The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has significant concerns that extensive development within the Mattawoman Creek Watershed will irreparably harm this water body, which supports a diverse, high-quality aquatic ecosystem,” Hall wrote. Ninety-three percent of the 9,000 acres is located within the watershed.


Charles County Approves Septic Tier Map

March 13, 2014

As previously reported by Conduit Street, Charles County has formed a stakeholders work group make recommendations regarding the County’s comprehensive plan and propose a septic tier map.  A March 11 article reported that the County commissioners voted 3-2 to reject the septic map proposed by the work group and instead adopted an alternate proposal that would classify half of a deferred development district that includes Waldorf and Bryans Road as an area designated for future sewer service.  From the article:

Charles County Environmental Program Manager Charles Rice presented the [work group’s] map proposal to the commissioners alongside Director of Planning and Growth Management Peter Aluotto and Planning Director Steve Ball. …

Rice said the large deferred development district, which technically is planned for future sewer, could have been placed in Tier II but was put in Tier IV because none of it has been released for development. He also noted that half of the deferred development district already is protected lands.

The article stated that after some debate by the commissioners, there was a short break and the staff returned with a new map that placed half of the deferred development in Tier II while keeping the Mattawoman Creek watershed area in Tier IV.  This was the map that the commissioners adopted.

The approved map essentially shifts 9,000 acres of the deferred development district out of Tier IV, which is reserved for forest and resource conservation, and into Tier II, where future sewer service is planned. …

“We feel this meets the intent of the septic bill,” Rice said.

Having just seen the new map, Maryland Department of Planning Secretary Rich Hall said he was unable to determine whether it was legal.

Charles County Workgroup Grapples With Septic Tier Map, TDR Reform

February 28, 2014

A February 21 article provided an update on the ongoing meetings of Charles County workgroup tasked with creating a new septic tier map and comprehensive plan map.  Currently the workgroup is focused on septic tiers and creating a workable transfer of development rights (TDR) program.  The article indicated that the workgroup had much discussion over how to handle development that may exist in areas zoned as agricultural.  Under state law, areas zoned as agricultural must be designated as the most restrictive Tier IV classification in the septic tier map.

The meeting began with a map drawn by the Maryland Department of Planning as a starting point. In accordance with the 2012 state law requiring “tier” maps for counties that want to build future major subdivisions on septic, the state map drew the county’s agricultural and conservation zones into Tier IV, where only minor subdivisions on septic are permitted.

Panel member David Lines, a La Plata farmer, took quick exception to the map, objecting that it included in Tier IV areas that long have been developed.

“Can’t we have a clear map that shows what development is in this county?” he asked. “I think you will find that the county is more highly developed than you think, than you’re representing, anyway.”

Work group member Steve Bunker, chairman of the Charles County Planning Commission, said the law specifies that the tiers be determined by the land’s planned zoning, not its current condition.

“The law says county jurisdiction decides what is going to be drawn in the tier map, not what necessarily the department of planning wants or desires,” Lines said.

MDP Secretary Richard Hall, a member of the panel, said the law is “extremely clear” that agricultural and resource protection zones belong in Tier IV.

“It may make sense to talk about changes to the comp plan that recognize some of these realities on the ground, but right now those are the areas in your current, active plan and your current zoning, which is what the septic law says you have to use for your tier map,” Hall said.

The article also indicated that the workgroup discussed the challenges of creating a TDR program that is fair to farmers.

The group also met Feb. 14, primarily to focus on agricultural issues in the county.  …

[Former Calvert County planning director and workgroup member Greg] Bowen advocated for creating a Tier IV map similar to that of the proposed Priority Preservation Area map, along with a Tier II map review focused on expanding the sewer system to improve water quality. The tier map is a state mandate that requires dividing county land into four categories or tiers based on how much development county sewer and preservation plans are expected to support.

Bowen also suggested using state programs adequately, along with modifying the TDR program and creating a purchasable development rights program, where the county would pay landowners to preserve land. He also suggested bond funding or a county transfer tax that would allow 50 percent of the cash to go toward land preservation in PPAs and 50 percent to infrastructure in the priority funding areas.  …

Lines was the first to voice his support of Bowen’s ideas.

“It makes my farmer’s heart feel good. I see no reason why we couldn’t do all that,” Lines said.  …

“It’s like we have an entire part of the county that differs from the rural vision,” Lines said. “We have this dichotomy, and the builders have a nonlevel playing field with TDRs. Builders get a free pass. There’s this fairness issue of builders who use TDRs and builders who do not.”  …

Member Doug Meeker, a local developer, had a slightly different position.

“Why do we need to force change if it’s already headed in that direction?” Meeker asked the group. “Rather than telling someone what they can and can’t do with their land, I think it’s much more important to incentivize them.”

House Committee Hears MACo Initiative Legislation on Septic System Hookups

January 31, 2014

MACo and county representatives testified with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) on legislation (HB 11) that would allow monies from the septic system account of the Bay Restoration Fund (BRF) to be used to connect failing septic systems to wastewater treatment plants even if the systems were located outside of a priority funding area.  Before the monies would be made available, any proposed project would have to go through a Smart Growth exception process to ensure that there were adequate protections against sprawl and the project was consistent with a county’s comprehensive plan and water and sewer master plan.  The bill is a MACo 2014 legislative initiative and was sponsored by MDE as a departmental bill.

The bill hearing took place before the House Environmental Matters Committee on January 29.  MACo Legal and Policy Counsel Les Knapp joined representatives from MDE at the witness table.  Knapp offered two amendments that had been worked out with both MDE and the Maryland Department of Planning.  The amendments broadened the types of wastewater treatment plants that could be considered under the exception process and clarified when areas with proposed projects would have to be amended into a county’s water and sewer master plan.

Several counties also testified in support of the bill with the proposed MACo amendments, including Kent County Planning and Stormwater Management Director Amy Moredock, Anne Arundel County Director of Public Works Chris Phipps, and Prince George’s County Environmental Health Division Manager Evelyn Hoban.  Maryland Delegate Steven Arentz, Queen Anne’s County Commissioner Bob Simmons, and Queen Anne’s County Administrator Gregg Todd testified with respect to a proposed project on Kent Island.  The Maryland Municipal League also testified in support of the bill.

While several other witnesses offered potential amendments, no one testified in opposition to the bill.

MACo HB 11 Testimony

Charles County Creates Workgroup to Develop Comprehensive Plan & Septic Tiers

January 10, 2014

A January 7 article reported the Charles County Commissioners voted 3-2 to create a six member workgroup that will make recommendations on the County’s proposed comprehensive plan update and create a septic tier map for the County.  As previously reported by Conduit Street, the County’s plan update has been controversial, provoking strong reactions from both proponents and opponents, including State officials.  From the article:

As proposed by commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D), the workgroup’s members will comprise “an equal number of proponents and opponents of the proposed Comprehensive Plan” — Charles County Planning Commission Chairman Steven M. Bunker, Vice Chairman Joseph Richard, Maryland Department of Planning Secretary Richard E. Hall, developer Douglas W. Meeker, farmer David Lines and former Calvert County planning director Greg Bowen. It will complete its work and submit recommendations by Feb. 28 to the commissioners, who will then vote up or down without making changes to the work group’s proposals.  …

“I am convinced that the comprehensive plan that has been submitted is legally sufficient,” Collins said, adding that he proposed the workgroup to allow for further public feedback on the plan.

The article noted that the Commissioners who voted against the workgroup felt that primary responsibility for the plan update should rest with the Commissioners and were concerned about marginalizing citizen and county planning staff input.

Chesapeake Bay Lecture Series Discusses Septic System Pollution

November 22, 2013

A November 20 Easton Star Democrat article reported on the third installment of a four-part lecture series titled “Living and Working by the Bay.”  The lecture series is hosted by the Talbot County Free Library and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  The third installment focused on septic system pollution going into the Chesapeake Bay and how to reduce it.

Erik Fisher, the Maryland land use planner for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, started the lecture explaining that in order for the Bay to be sustainable and meet the 2025 goal set forth in the Maryland Clean Water Blueprint, Maryland needs to have a decrease of 11 million pounds of nitrogen in its annual output. Of that 11 million pounds, septic systems alone need to decrease nitrogen pollution by 1.2 million pounds.  …

Dr. Thomas Fisher, professor from the University of Maryland Center for Enviromental [sic] Studies, then talked about water quality and how testing the water quality in different parts of the watershed can help understand the measures needed to improve the Bay.  …

Jim Lewis, senior agent of agriculture and natural resources at the Caroline County Agricultural Extension of the University of Maryland, talked about his plans to experiment with the planting of switchgrass on and around septic systems to absorb nitrogen.

The article states that the final lecture in the series will occur on Monday, November 25 and focus on the lives of watermen.

MDP Creates Online Septics Law Training Course

November 13, 2013

In a November 12 press release the Maryland Department of Planning (MDP) announced that it was launching a new online training course for local planning commissioners regarding the implementation of the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012 (the septic system legislation).  From the press release:

 The training covers the basics of four different growth tiers, which depict various levels of new residential development based on local land use plans and local sewerage plans. Tier I, for example, reflects areas served by public sewer, while Tier III areas are typically not planned for public sewer and not characterized by lands planned or zoned for resource protection.

The focus of the training course is on how planning commissions and boards need to review subdivision applications in Tier III areas, including such elements as the level of existing and needed public services and potential environmental impacts. The training also specifies how planning commissions and boards can meet the transparency intent of the law with public hearings and formal resolutions.

The septic system training module can be reviewed here.

Frederick County Announces Agreement on Septic Tier Map

February 15, 2013

A February 15 Frederick News-Post article announces an agreement between Frederick County and the Maryland Department of Planning (MDP) over the county’s septic system growth tier map.  As previously reported by Conduit Street, MDP had raised concerns with the county’s initial map.  Under the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012 (SB 236), a county may adopt a growth tier map that divides its lands into 4 tiers that set where development on septic systems occur.  If a county chooses not to adopt a tier map, the county is prohibited from authorizing major developments on septic systems.  While MDP does not have the ability to approve the tier maps, it can comment and require that a public hearing be held to discuss its concerns.

The article also notes that with the agreement, Frederick County may qualify for an exemption that would allow for limited additional development in the most restrictive tier, Tier IV, because of the county’s strong rural zoning.

“I think it’s an astounding success,” Commissioner Paul Smith said Thursday.  …

State planning officials said the map did not meet the spirit of the law.  [Frederick Commissioner President Blaine] Young and Eric Soter, director of the county’s community planning division, met Tuesday with Richard Hall, state secretary of planning, to discuss the county’s position. By the end of the meeting, Soter and Young said, Hall was convinced that Frederick County would qualify for the [Tier IV] exemption his department is authorized to give.

County staff will prepare a new map. It will be the subject of a Feb. 26 public meeting, which Hall is scheduled to attend.

“It’s a huge victory,” Young said. “It gives us some of the flexibility we need in Tier IV.”


Septic Implementation Debate Continues with Public Hearings

February 14, 2013

The Gazette reports on continuing discussion regarding county implementation of the septic tiers required under the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012. That legislation, most commonly referenced as the “septics bill,” was passed to require local governments seeking to authorize certain levels of development outside public sewer service to designate specific tiers for that allowance. Counties not adopting such a tier system would not be able to authorize such “major” development – a threshold that varies by county, but is set at no more than 8 residential units by the state law.

From the Gazette coverage:

Furthermore, some of the maps are “problematic,” so the administration of Gov. Martin O’Malley is considering its options to get governments to comply, said Jason Dubow, environmental planning director for the Maryland Department of Planning.

Both carrots and sticks are being considered, including programs and funding sources, Planning Secretary Richard E. Hall said Thursday.

Options for taking the counties to court also are being examined, including whether the governor could have the attorney general sue, or the state might join as a plaintiff if an advocacy group sued, Hall said.

New legislation might be filed, “but I don’t think there’s a lot of appetite for that,” Hall said. “What I most hope happens is we work with the counties to come up with a map we can live with.”

Hall said his agency managed to “talk through” problems it had with the early maps of several counties before arriving at “not the map we would have drawn but … a map that made sense.”

Cecil County public hearing information

The Maryland Department of Planning website contains extensive information about the implementation of the 2012 law.

MDP Releases Comprehensive Report on Septic Implementation

February 1, 2013

The Maryland Department of Planning has released its comprehensive status report on the implementation of septics tiers and related provisions of SB 236 from 2012. As previously reported on Conduit Street, the Department has recently been offering its observations on the county progress with the development and adoption of the tier maps.

The report reviews each jurisdiction’s progress on plan development and adoption, and includes comments and mapping alternatives for numerous counties. Following a presentation of a wide range of factual data and procedural or substantive comments, the Department offers a summary of its envisioned “Next Steps” as follows:

Next Steps

MDP will continue to work with those local governments that have not adopted tier maps to provide whatever assistance and support is necessary for them to do so. For jurisdictions with adopted tier maps that received MDP comment letters, MDP will coordinate with them in preparation for their required public hearing and to hopefully bring their maps into compliance. At the time of writing the administration is considering options for how to best respond to the counties with problematic tier maps.

Material from the Maryland Department of Planning:

Main Septics Website

February 1 Report to General Assembly

Maps for Each County and Municipality


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