SNOW Hill — Since September, Senate Bill 236, also known as the “septic bill,” has been hotly debated across the shore, with opponents arguing that it would be a noose around the neck of development while proponents assert that it is a necessary antidote to sprawling growth. The debate came closer to a conclusion last week when the Worcester County Planning Commission voted 5-2 in favor of recommending that the County Commissioners adopt Senate Bill 236 as well as Bill 12-6, a text amendment that would expand the definition of a minor subdivision from five lots to seven.
The commission’s decision received mixed reviews from the audience. While many environmental advocates were in favor of Worcester moving forward in accepting the septic bill, which would divide county land into one of four tiers, they were opposed to re-defining the definition of a minor subdivision to allow more lots.
In a letter to the commission, Maryland Land Use Planner Erik Fisher, who is with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, warned about the dangers of increased sprawl under Bill 12-6.
“Sprawling development is generally the highest polluting form of growth. Permitting more of this kind of development as may be encouraged under Bill 12-6 will complicate the County’s efforts to reduce pollution flowing to the Pocomoke River and the Coastal Bays, both of which are impaired for nutrients and as such require substantial reductions under the Clean Water Act,” Fisher wrote.
Dave Wilson, executive director for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program (MCBP), argued that allowing minor subdivisions to go from five to seven lot maximums will “undermine more than 30 actions” in MCBP’s Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan for the bays behind Ocean City and Assateague. Minor subdivisions, it should be noted, do not require Planning Commission approval.
“It would also ignore the Worcester County Comprehensive Plan,” wrote Wilson in a letter to the commission, “and the hundreds of people and planners who thoughtfully reached consensus on the sensible, cost-effective way for Worcester County to grow.”
Bill 12-6 would present a real danger for overdevelopment in protected areas, added Wilson, by “effectively [increasing] the amount of allowable growth on our farms and forestland by 40 percent.”
However, residents like Bill McDermott argued in favor of allowing more lots in the definition of a minor subdivision. He asserted that it wasn’t fair for the county to shackle his property if he wants to reasonably divide it. If the county wants to directly interfere with his private property, McDermott suggested they purchase it first.
“If you want to restrict it, buy it,” he said.
McDermott’s argument was likewise against the county accepting Senate Bill 236. Adoption of that bill would require Worcester to divide all land in the county into one of four tiers with each tier having different restrictions about how it can be developed. Tiers II and III would allow major subdivisions to be built on septic systems in either a limited capacity or after a public hearing and approval of the Planning Commission, respectively.
Tiers I and IV would not allow any major subdivisions to be built on septic systems. Some counties, such as Worcester, could take advantage of an exception based on dwelling unit density that would remove the restrictions from Tier IV.
Kellee Kennett, chair of the Worcester County Tea Party, and Laura Dover, a Tea Party member, both bashed Senate Bill 236 as, in their words, unconstitutional.
“In our opinion this law violates the 5th and 14th amendments,” said Laura Dover. “This very much constitutes a taking without compensation.”
Dover felt that some property owners in the more restrictive tiers, including Tier III and Tier IV, could see their property rights impacted.
“The Constitution is the supreme law of the land and this law that has come down from the state clearly violates it,” Dover claimed.
Kennett agreed and warned that the tiers could have a negative economic impact for the county in the way they restrict growth.
If the county does not except SB 236, however, no new major subdivisions will be allowed on septic systems anywhere in the county.
Resident Steve Taylor said that he was in favor of the tier system because it would shepherd rural sprawl and prevent county resources from being drawn too thin.
“The more growth that we have that’s sprawl growth that increases the expense of infrastructure by spreading the community out, means that I’m going to end up paying higher taxes,” he said.
After public comments and with several months of regular discussion on Senate Bill 236 under their belt, the Planning Commission voted 5-2, with Wayne Hartman and Richard Wells opposed, to give both Senate Bill 236 and Bill 12-6, a favorable recommendation. The motion was made by Brooks Clayville, who took a moment to reinforce the fact that the commission is only acting in the best way they see fit to directives handed down by Annapolis.
“We didn’t want to bring this up. The state brought this up,” he said. “So this is nothing but us reacting to something new the state put upon us. I didn’t want to deal with this. I was happy with where we were.”
In supporting re-defining the definition of a minor subdivision, Clayville acknowledged that, if approved, the change would alter Worcester’s effective density, which would likely eliminate the county’s chance for an exemption for Tier IV properties. However, Clayville felt that the expansion of minor subdivisions would make up for the loss. He also admitted that Worcester had missed the Dec. 31 state deadline to change subdivision definitions in response to SB 236 but felt that the county should attempt for an exception.
The Planning Commission’s favorable recommendation is now set to progress to the County Commissioners, who will make the final ruling on whether or not to approve SB 236 and Bill 12-6. A public hearing on the case will follow in the near future.