O’Malley renews bid to curb sprawl by limiting septic systems

February 4, 2012

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is again seeking to limit new septic systems in order to curb development sprawl, and it’s all about the Chesapeake Bay.

“A house on septic causes six to 10 times the amount of pollution to the bay as a house on public sewer,” O’Malley (D) said last week in his State of the State address, telling lawmakers that his proposed measure would help the bay and safeguard the state’s farmland.

The restrictions in the governor’s new proposal are less stringent than those he sought to push through last year. O’Malley wanted to prohibit “major subdivisions” of five or more houses built with septic systems. Surprised lawmakers did not applaud when O’Malley announced that proposal in his address one year ago.

The new approach would allow such developments “to a limited degree” in rural areas where sewer service is not planned but that are not “dominated” by farmland or forestland, Richard Hall, Maryland’s planning secretary, told state senators last week.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore), chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, said the new proposal has a chance. “It’s a different bill. . . . It’s one that has some hopes of passing,” she said.

McIntosh chaired a task force that O’Malley created to study the septic systems issue after the first bill was shelved. The new bill reflects many of the task force’s recommendations.

O’Malley’s effort last year to restrict septic systems galvanized Republicans, rural lawmakers, farmers and developers, and the new proposal is likely to draw opposition from some of the same quarters.

Republican lawmakers are calling the legislation an example of state overreach.

“It’s not at all more palatable, because for the first time it en­gages the state in those decisions. Those decisions should be made locally,” said Sen. David R. Brink­ley (R-Frederick). Brinkley was a member of the septics task force but voted against many of the recommendations in the final report.

Sen. Edward R. Reilly (R-Anne Arundel) said the legislation would devalue farmland and infringe on landowners’ property rights, “which is one of the fundamental principles of our country,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne’s), who has accused O’Malley of waging “war on rural Maryland,” said the bill adds to a litany of O’Malley policies that have “the effect of shutting down rural development.”

“Not everybody is going to live in an urban area in the state, and there are a lot of questions about all of the centralized power in the governor’s bill,” Pipkin said.

The bill could also be a tough sell for Democratic lawmakers who represent rural areas.

Sen. Ronald N. Young (D-Frederick) told Hall at last week’s briefingthat he needs to know more about the legislation. “I know that when I go before the building association, they’re going to strap me up and stretch me.”

Instead of banning large housing developments served by septic systems outright, the legislation would use a “tiered approach” to make approval of such developments more difficult the farther they are from cities, towns and other areas with existing sewage infrastructure.

While the previous bill defined a “major subdivision” as five or more houses, the new one would accept existing definitions in each jurisdiction.

“We’re giving local governments a little more flexibility, and we’re going further to acknowledge and to bring in . . . their own local planning and zoning,” Hall said.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), one of the bill’s sponsors, said the legislation “puts teeth” in the state’s 15-year-old policy of encouraging growth in designated “priority funding areas,” where sewer systems and other infrastructure already exist.

“I think this could be one of the most significant bills that we pass in many, many years,” Pinsky said. “Besides restricting septics, implicitly, it’s going to restrict growth, and I am a smart growth guy.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has mandated a Chesapeake Bay “pollution diet” for the District as well as Maryland and five other states in the bay’s watershed, which must reach pollution reduction goals by 2025.

This year, to address shortfalls in funding for the state’s bay cleanup efforts, O’Malley is proposing to double the average “flush tax” — currently $2.50 a month — that Marylanders pay on their water and sewer bills.

McIntosh said she was told by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation that the state will have met 50 percent of the EPA’s goal if the state passes both the septic systems bill and the flush-tax bill.

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