« That Thanksgiving dinner? Mostly from out of state | Main | Greens pushing offshore wind at forums »

November 23, 2011

Septic task force produces "roadmap" for MD growth

The task force Gov. Martin O'Malley formed to revive his failed attempt to curb septic systems in Maryland has come up with something far more sweeping - a "roadmap" to future growth in the state that attempts to rein in the metastasis of sprawl into the countryside.

Whether the panel's new "tiered" approach to development will win over the builders, farmers and local pols who blocked O'Malley's septic restrictions remains to be seen. Likewise for whether it will work, even if it becomes law.

The 28-member panel, meeting Tuesday in Annapolis, sidestepped O'Malley's contentious proposal to ban large new housing projects on septic and voted instead to recommend putting all state land into one of four growth "tiers," with varying degrees of incentives or hurdles for new septic-dependent development in each. 

The impetus for change comes as the state struggles to meet its federally set targets for reducing the nutrient pollution fouling the Chesapeake Bay.  Per household, officials say, septic systems release far more nitrogen into ground water and nearby streams than do properly functioning wastewater treatment plants.

Growth would continue to be encouraged in cities, towns and "priority funding areas" previously designated for intense development under Maryland's 14-year-old Smart Growth laws. The vast majority of those already are served by water and sewer systems, though the plan does not preclude septic systems in places not now hooked up.

A second tier of more limited development would be allowed around existing municipalities and unincorporated growth areas. Septic systems would only be allowed there if local officials could demonstrate to state officials that connecting to sewer was out of the question. Moreover, the impacts on ground water and nearby streams of the water-fouling nitrogen from those septic systems would have to be offset somehow, say by curbing polluted runoff from nearby farms or other existing development.

New construction would be even more limited in a third "tier" consisting of rural villages and crossroads already on septic systems, but it would be largely restricted to "filling out" the existing boundaries of those small communities.

Finally, almost no septic-based construction would be allowed on lands targeted for rural or environmental preservation, including much of the state's farmland.

"This approach works harder to deal with what's in place," said Richard E. Hall, state planning secretary. Rural officials had complained that the septic curbs O'Malley had pushed earlier this year were too rigid and didn't recognize the different circumstances of various parts of the state.

"Bottom line, it will change the way we hope counties and municipalities look at planning growth," said Del. Maggie McIntosh, the Baltimore Democrat who co-chaired the 28-member task force, along with Baltimore real estate lawyer Jon Laria.

Details remain to be worked out before submitting the plan to O'Malley, who will then decide whether to seek legislative approval for it. But McIntosh said she was glad the group had gotten beyond the bitter debate of last winter over septic curbs and tackled the broader issue of how to reform Maryland's spotty Smart Growth law.

McIntosh, who heads the House Environmental Matters Committee, acknowledged the new plan is likely to face similar opposition from at least some rural and suburban officials, as well as from builders.

"We've got a long way to go on this," she said. But she said she hoped the "roadmap," as she called it, would stop or at least curtail the spread of scattered housing across the state's remaining rural land, which critics say is both harmful to the environment and costly to taxpayers.

Conservationists praised the task force's work, which included a call for tripling the "flush fee" paid by every homeowner to raise funds for wastewater treatment plant upgrades and for projects to reduce urban and suburban storm-water pollution. The panel also agreed that wherever septic-based construction was permitted, less-polluting but more costly "best-available-technology" systems should always be required.

"We got real recognition by the task force that a different pattern of development has to occur," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland. "Both for environmental and economic reasons, we just can't keep funding all the schools, roads, parking lots and everything else that goes with this dispersed, low-density, poorly planned development."

There were dissenters, however, notably Republican Sen. David R. Brinkley of Frederick. The Associated Press reported that he criticized the plan as an encroachment on local officials' traditional control over development.

"I think it's an attempt by the state to micromanage what's going on at the local level," he said, according to AP.

For more on the task force and its recommendations, go here.

(Septic system for new home being built in Baltimore County.  Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:02 AM | | Comments (1)


It's encouraging to see this kind of work moving forward. Maryland's taxpayers cannot sustain the high cost of sprawl development.

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About the bloggers
Tim WheelerTim Wheeler reports on the environment and Chesapeake Bay. A native of West Virginia, he has focused mainly on Maryland's environment since moving here in 1983. Along the way, he's crewed aboard a skipjack in the bay, canoed under city streets up the Jones Fall from the Inner Harbor, and gone deep underground in a western Maryland coal mine. He loves seafood, rambles in the country and good stories. He hopes to share some here.

Contributor Christy Zuccarini has been blogging about the local DIY craft scene for a year for She brings her pespective on all things handmade to B'More Green, where she will highlight projects you can do yourself as well as crafters who are integrating sustainable methods and materials.

Most Recent Comments
Baltimore Sun coverage
  • Sign up for the At Home newsletter
The home and garden newsletter includes design tips and trends, gardening coverage, ideas for DIY projects and more.
See a sample | Sign up

Charm City Current
Stay connected