MACo Focusing on Four Land Use/Environmental Areas for the 2013 Session

As previously reported on Conduit Street, one of MACo’s 2013 legislative initiatives is to defend local land use autonomy.  In pursuing this initiative, MACo is focusing on 4 objectives:  (1) legislation to move from a 6 to a 10-year comprehensive planning and zoning cycle; (2) a 2-year “time out” on new county government land use mandates; (3) a limited set of exceptions and variances to the regulations that require the use of best available nitrogen-removal technology (BAT) for new and certain replacement septic systems outside of the critical areas; and (4) ongoing efforts by the State and other key stakeholders to address concerns raised by the Conowingo Dam.

Census-Based Planning Cycle

MACo will be submitting legislation that would move the comprehensive planning and zoning cycle from a 6-year cycle to a 10-year cycle.  There are two primary reasons to make such a change.  First, local comprehensive plans are largely based on data released by the United States decennial census and it is only logical to better align comprehensive plan development with the release of the census data.  Second, given the significant number of new land use mandates and requirements that have been placed on counties since 2006, it has become increasingly difficult to meet the 6-year deadline while still complying with the new requirements and providing for an open and public process.  A 10-year cycle is more practical.

The legislation would require a “check-up” at the five-year point of a comprehensive plan’s adoption that would be part of the annual report that local governments must submit to the Maryland Department of Planning.  A jurisdiction would retain the right to amend or rewrite its comprehensive plan at any point in time.

2-Year Land Use “Time Out”

Local governments have had to absorb significant new land use legislation or regulations for every year since 2006.  The requirements have included new comprehensive plan elements, reporting requirements, planning visions, critical area regulations, stormwater management regulations, Smart Growth indicators, PlanMaryland, 2012 septic system legislation growth tiers, BAT septic system regulations, and the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).

County planning and land use departments are struggling to implement the many new requirements and explain the changes to their citizens.  The cumulative impact of these changes is placing a great strain on a county’s ability to follow and implement them.  Additionally, with so many changes, it has become extremely difficult to track which of the changes are producing beneficial results and which are not working.

Consequently, MACo is seeking a 2-year “time out” on any new county land use mandates in order for counties to absorb what they are already struggling with.  The time out would not target issues that have been adopted or accepted but need refinement.  For example, the State and counties must create an “Accounting for Growth” policy under the previously adopted Watershed Implementation Plan for the Bay TMDL and the “time out” would not apply to this.  The time out would also not apply to environmental issues that do not affect county land use, such as offshore wind.  However, MACo would consider a new environmental requirement related to land use as falling under the time out.

The time out cannot be legally adopted through legislation or regulation but would be an informal or “gentleman’s agreement” between the Administration, the General Assembly, and potentially other key stakeholders.

BAT Septic System Regulation Reform

The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) adopted regulations after the 2013 Session requiring all new and certain replacement septic systems to use BAT technology.  However, the regulations contain no provisions for the granting of exceptions or variances for septic systems located outside of a critical area and MACo believes that there are situations where an exception or variance would be warranted.  MACo will work with MDE, county environmental health directors and other key stakeholders to propose a reasonable set of variances or exceptions to the BAT regulations.  The variances or exceptions will be based on where science indicates that a BAT septic system would not have a meaningful impact on reducing nitrogen in nearby waters or where  a sound public policy reason exists to waive the requirement.  An example of a public policy reason would be a homeowner who is converting a room in his or her home to move in an elderly relative who needs care.  Currently, that situation could count as a capacity expansion under the BAT regulations and require the homeowner to install a BAT septic system.

Addressing the Conowingo Dam

Finally, MACo will advocate for action to address the sediment and phosphorus pollution challenge posed by the Conowingo Dam.  It is critical to the longterm efforts to restore the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay and certain of its tributaries that the Conowingo Dam issue be addressed.  MACo will work with the Chesapeake Bay Commission and those State agencies involved with the local and federal re-licensing of the Dam to seek a resolution to the problem.  MACo ‘s efforts will including advocating for the United States Environmental Protection Agency to become involved in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s license review of the Conowingo.

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