MACo and Many Others Testify on Septics Bill

The Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee heard the Administration’s septics legislation in a marathon nearly 7-hour bill hearing on September 14.  The House Environmental Matters Committee considered its version of the bill on February 15.  Both hearings were standing room only, as Governor Martin O’Malley, local governments, environmental groups, the agricultural community, builders, and many others testified for or against the bill.

As previously reported by Conduit Street, the legislation would prohibit the use of septic systems in “major subdivisions” (which could less than 4 lots in some counties) unless a county adopts a “4-tier system” of land classification in their comprehensive plans.  The tiers are subject to approval by the Maryland Department of Planning (MDP) and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE).  MDE would also approve residential subdivisions.

Governor O’Malley’s testified that the bill was necessary to offset the damaging environmental impact of septic systems, stating that from 1985-2009, while the total nitrogen load decreased in Maryland by 37%, nitrogen loads from septic systems increased by 32%.  From the Governor’s written testimony:

To achieve [nitrogen reduction and Smart Growth] goals, the bill uses established planning processes – the local comprehensive plan and subdivision plat approvals.  Rather than limit all septic growth to minor subdivisions, the bill allows for a local comprehensive plan amendment for growth tiers, that meet the statutory requirements, so that in Tier III some limited growth on septics for major subdivisions can occur.

MACo offered testimonystating that as the bill was introduced, it posed major concerns for local land use autonomy.  MACo proposed amendments to the bill that would remove provisions giving the State expanded power and authority over local land use decisions.  MACo’s five areas of “critical” concern include:

  1. Removing MDE’s new approval authority over residential subdivision plats, including lot lines and street lines
  2. Removing the authority of MDP and MDE to approve the tiers
  3. Revising the definition and criteria for several of the tiers so that they are based local comprehensive plans and not potentially on State-drawn maps
  4. Removing a new requirement that county comprehensive plans must be drawn around PFAs and PFA “comment areas” if a county adopts the tier system
  5. Changing the definition of “subdivision” in the bill as the current definition raised many implementation challenges

MACo panelists over the two days of testimony included:  Calvert County Commissioner Susan Shaw, Cecil County Commissioner Tari Moore, Garrett County Commissioner Gregan Crawford, Saint Mary’s County Commissioner Francis “Jack” Russell, Calvert County Director of Planning and Zoning Charles “Chuck” Johnston, Caroline County Planner and Codes Administrator Katheleen Freeman, Kent County Director of Planning Gail Owings, and MACo Associate Director Les Knapp.

MML offered testimony supporting the bills with a suggested amendment that if a county did not include a municipality’s planned extension of water and sewer services into the county’s Water and Sewer Master Plan, then the municipality may appeal directly to MDE for consideration of the extension.

Both the House and Senate will likely send the bills to workgroups to consider the many amendments and positions that have been offered on the bills.



February 14 Baltimore Sun blog post focusing on the lead-up to the hearings

February 14 Baltimore Sun article focusing on Governor O’Malley’s testimony regarding his green agenda

February 14 Capital article on the Governor’s exchange during the testimony with Anne Arundel County Senator Ed Reilly over the impact of septic systems in the Senator’s district

February 14 Washington Post article discusses concerns about the negative effects the Governor’s septics bill and Bay Restoration increase legislation could have on small businesses



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