Differing Opinions Presented at Farm Bureau/MACo Septics Symposium

The Maryland Farm Bureau and MACo jointly hosted a Symposium on Septic Systems and Future Growth in Maryland at Chesapeake College on August 16.  The Symposium provided a forum for stakeholders to present their opinions on banning or limiting growth on septic systems.  As previously reported on Conduit Street, the Task Force on Sustainable Growth and Wastewater Disposal is currently meeting and will make recommendations on septic systems and other growth-related issues for the 2012 legislative session.  The Task Force is a result from a proposal by Governor Martin O’Malley and subsequent legislation introduced in the 2011 Session to limit the use of septic systems to subdivisions containing four or fewer homes.  The legislation also vested certain land use approval authority with the State.

Maryland Secretary of Planning Richard Hall argued in support of the proposed legislation, noting that with a projected 1 million more Marylanders in the next 20 years, a septics ban would help stop suburban sprawl, protect farmland, and reduce nitrogen pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.  He stated that the 2011 bill was modeled after Worcester County zoning restrictions.  When questioned about whether some communities could be built on shared facilities, such as package treatment plants, as opposed to septic systems, he stressed that “we need to be careful” with shared facilities.

Jennifer Bevan Dangle and  Kelly Carneal from 1000 Friends of Maryland also supported the legislation, arguing that providing services for sprawl growth areas costs 3 times as much while providing less tax base.  They argued a multi-family dwelling in a developed community can bring in 9 times the tax amount.  They also cited the national trend towards compact, walkable, mixed-use development, which is being driven by young millennials and the elderly, and the need to protect contiguous farmland.  Ms. Bevan-Dangle characterized septics as “a hidden subsidy for sprawl development.”

 House Environmental Matters Chairman Maggie McIntosh, who is also chair of the Task Force, discussed the Task Force’s approach and work.  She noted that she was the person who halted the 2011 legislation because she believed it “deserved a broader discussion.”  She also believes the Task Force will produce substantive recommendations.

Chairman McIntosh said she recognizes that homebuilding and development are major economic components in the State.  But she also noted that agriculture and the seafood industry are also critical components.  “We need to preserve what I believe is our heart and our heritage,” she argued. 

She also noted the need to address the issue of stormwater and stated the Task Force will look at funding mechanisms to help wastewater, septics, and stormwater.  This may include mandatory local stormwater fees or creating a stormwater component under the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fee

Chairman McIntosh noted that it would be relatively easy to require any new homes built on septics to use septics with the best available nitrogen removal technology (BAT).  However, she noted that it would be much harder to address the underlying issue of why some counties are forced to grow on septics.  She stressed the need to examine priority funding areas (PFAs) and make sure they work for all counties.  She noted Oregon reassess its PFAs every 10 years.  The Chairman also stressed the need to avoid a one-size-fits-all solution.

Finally, Chairman McIntosh highlighted the need to set goals and benchmarks for counties and municipalities in a way that does not take away their zoning authority.  “I do not want to be the zoning queen of Maryland…I really do believe counties and municipalities should retain that right and privilege,” she explained.

 Maryland Senator “EJ” Pipkin maintained that the septics proposal was another component in an ongoing “war on rural Maryland.”  He argued, “It is a war against property rights, anti-job, and leads clearly to higher tolls and taxes…But all that pales in comparison with the septic bill that is here today.”  He specifically referenced a provision in the 2011 legislation that would have given certain project approval authority to the State.  “It’s about control and [land] value,” he explained passionately.  The Senator also stated that if land use power were to vest with the State, it would make it easier for opponents to stop a project.

Soil scientist George Frigon gave a detailed analysis on why he believed many of the underlying assumptions concerning the amount of nitrogen pollution produced by septics are wrong.  He believes septic pollution is overstated and concluded that nitrogen loadings to the Bay from either wastewater treatment plants using enhanced nitrogen removal or septic systems using approved BAT are extremely low and almost equal. 

Frederick County Agriculture Marketing Specialist Colby Ferguson, Kenny Bounds from MidAtlantic Farm Credit, and Tom Farasy from the Maryland Builders Association discussed the economic impacts of the septics proposal.  Mr. Ferguson noted that under the 2011 legislation it would be impossible to have economic development in certain rural counties.  Mr. Bounds challenged a study by the Harry R. Hughes Agro-Ecology Center that found that downzoning does not negatively affect property values.  He noted that a peer-review group found that statement to be false.  Mr. Farasy discussed the fiscal cost to comply with the mandates in the septics legislation and Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) while still allowing growth to occur.  He noted that if the pollution reductions were largely placed on new development, it would take 29 years to reach achieve a 40% nitrogen reduction goal per redevelopment acre and 59 years to achieve a 80% nitrogen reduction goal per redevelopment acre. 

Finally, a panel of county representatives presented the county government perspective.  Cecil County Commissioner Tari Moore stated that the 2011 legislation “actively intruded on local land use decision-making and had the effect of freezing growth.”  She noted the bill raised a number of concerns and issues, including:  unintentionally increasing sprawl, the practicality and costs of shared facilities, increasing home prices, and reducing county tax income by reducing the number of taxable parcels.  In response to a question about whether the 2011 legislation would take away local land use rights granted under Article 66B, Commissioner Moore replied, “Absolutely…Absolutely they are usurping local land use authority.  We are willing to be a partner with the State, but it should not be a parent-child relationship.”

Kent County Planning Director Gail Owings stressed that protecting agriculture has been a longstanding priority in Kent County and one of the lessons learned from the county’s efforts is the need for “local solutions for local conditions.”  Ms. Owings stated the need for a county to have many “tools” to address land use and environmental challenges and be able to tailor th0se tools for county-specific conditions.  She expressed concerns over the “mixed purposes” of the 2011 septics legislation and reiterated the proposal could have unintended consequences.  She also raised the issue of who will monitor shared facilities or BAT septics to ensure they function as intended.  She noted neither the State or the counties have the personnel or resources to manage the responsibility.

Former Calvert County Planning Director Greg Bowen noted that Calvert County had one of the most successful Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) programs in the nation.  He felt that the 2011 legislation was wrong by only focusing on a single pollutant source (septics) and argued that nutrient reductions needs to be fairly applied across all sectors.  Mr. Bowen raised concern about the legislation’s impacts on local planning and agricultural TDR and easement programs.  He also argued against a one-size-fits-all top-down approach that would be governed by State regulations.  “I hate to see regulations in place that I can’t defend,” Mr. Bowen explained, “The advantage of local regulations are that you can defend them as you made them.”  He concluded, “We need viable solutions with numbers that have been verified scientifically before we move forward.”

Copies of the Powerpoint presentations from the Symposium should be available on the Maryland Farm Bureau’s website shortly.

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