Septics Task Force Makes Final Set of Recommendations

As previously reported on Conduit Street, the Task Force on Sustainable Growth and Wastewater Disposal completed an initial set of recommendations on November 8, primarily relating to the use of Best Available Technology (BAT) for new septic systems, increasing the Bay Restoration Fee, and expanding the uses of the Bay Restoration Fund.  The Task Force met for a second decision meeting on November 22 and adopted another set of recommendations focusing on agriculture and growth.  The Task Force has concluded its work and a final report will be prepared and sent to Governor Martin O’Malley in early December.

Growth Workgroup Recommendations

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Task Force related to limiting the amount of growth on septic systems.  After much debate, the Task Force recommended a four-tiered approach that seeks to avoid a “one size fits all” solution.  Under the tiered approach, land is classified as one of four tiers and septic development is limited based on the type of tier.  Due to a lack of time, the Task Force’s recommendations concerning the four tiered system are fairly generic and the 2012 septics legislation will have to provide more detail

Tier 1 lands are those within Priority Funding Areas (PFAs).  Development on a Tier 1 land is expected to be on sewer, although there will be some form of grandfathering for current PFAs that lack wastewater treatment facilities.      

Tier 2 lands are those designated as growth areas by local governments in their comprehensive plans that are outside of a PFA.  Development is expected to be on sewer where available but if sewer capacity is not available some growth on septic systems or shared facilities will be allowed.  The Task Force decided against recommending a set number of septic systems and instead proposed septic systems would be subject to a discharge permit granted by the Maryland Department of the Environment.  Additionally, all new nitrogen pollution generated by septics would have to be completely offset.

Tier 3 lands are lands that are not targeted for sewer but lack the protections found in a Tier 4 land.  Agricultural funding will be limited for Tier 3 lands.  Septic development would be very restricted, with exceptions for rural villages and similar communities.  Like Tier 2, septic systems would be subject to an MDE permit and offset requirements.

Tier 4 lands include protected agricultural and resource conservation lands and those lands targeted for agricultural protection under a county’s Priority Preservation Area element in its comprehensive plan.  It is unclear if other lands targeted for preservation, such as under Greenprint, would also be included in Tier 4.  Tier 4 lands would be the most restrictive for septic system developments.

The Task Force also adopted Growth Workgroup recommendations for:  (1) a State infrastructure needs survey; (2) streamlining State building codes; (3) identification and removal of State and local barriers to growth in PFAs, including the use of “fast tracking” for the development and review process. 

Agriculture Workgroup Recommendations

The Task Force adopted the following recommendations of the Agriculture Workgroup:

(1) Allowing landowners who voluntarily retire development rights to qualify for selling nutrient trading credits.

(2) Allowing landowners subject to septic restrictions to make development decisions over time rather than having to make decisions concerning septic systems all at once.

(3) Reforming the estate tax to keep farming viable and reduce the chance of development.

(4) A State-sponsored Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) pilot project for counties and municipalities.

(5)  A State study on the effect of reforestation regulations, mitigation requirements, and best management practices on prime farmland.

The Task Force did not adopt a recommendation proposed by the Funding Workgroup and opposed by the Agriculture Workgroup to shift funding for cover crops from the Bay Restoration Fund.

Stakeholder Reactions to the Recommendations

A November 22 Daily Record article provides the perspective of three key Task Force members. 

Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, who chaired the panel, said she believes the O’Malley administration will iron out the details. Additional debate will take place in the next legislative session, which begins in January.  …

Richard Hall, the secretary for the Maryland Department of Planning, said he thought the diverse task force made progress on a complex issue.  …

Opponents, including Republican Sen. David Brinkley, of Frederick, criticized the plan as an encroachment on local development authority.

A November 25 article provides reactions from a variety of Task Force members and stakeholder groups.

Without more specific guidance, lawmakers might face significant hurdles in reaching a consensus on how to regulate septic systems, said Jen Aiosa, a senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  …

The vague framework is not necessarily a bad thing, said Meg Cronin, clean water program associate for the advocacy group Environment Maryland.

“[It] really does make sense, even to us, so we’re not upset,” she said.  …

In a legislative session during which lawmakers are planning to tackle a $1 billion-plus deficit and controversial issues such as new taxes and same-sex marriage, there is risk that septic legislation could be swept under the rug, [Delegate Stephen] Lafferty said.

The delegate said he is waiting for the governor to take the lead on septic-related legislation in 2012, but would not hesitate to introduce his own plan if necessary.

A November 29 Carrol County Times editorial endorsed the four-tier proposal but also cautioned that local officials would need to remain vigilant to make sure their concerns with the proposal are addressed.

The committee’s recommendation seems to strike a balance that includes recognizing the problems that come with septic systems while giving much of the control to local governments to decide whether there should be limits on them. The recommendations will make for a good starting point when the discussions come up again in the next legislative session.

Local governments have worked with the state in the past to reduce pollution and protect the Bay, and there is no reason to think that reasonable compromise can’t be achieved this time too. But local officials, as well as members of out delegation, will need to keep a close watch on this issue as it develops to ensure that their concerns are addressed with any legislation that may ultimately be proposed.



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