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)