SNOW HILL — In what some are calling smart environmental stewardship and others labeling an attack on the nation’s Constitution, the Worcester County Commissioners voted 5-2 not to change the county’s definition of a minor subdivision from five to seven lots.
Proponents of the change in definition, which would be covered by County Bill 12-6, asserted that the state and Worcester are strangling landowners who want to subdivide their land, especially farmers.
“How have we gotten to the point in our culture that a private property owner must come on bended knee, seeking permission from politicians to do with his or her land what he or she deems best?,” ?,” asked resident Carol Frasier.
Both sides acknowledged that farmers are the most likely to benefit from Bill 12-6, which would allow them to split their land into a maximum of seven lots either to sell or to grant to family. Frasier claimed that by limiting landowners to only five lots on a minor subdivision, especially with the state’s new Septic Bill expected to add further restrictions should it be implemented, the county risks alienating the 5th Amendment.
Resident Curtis Andrews agreed and referenced the 4th Amendment for good measure.
“I hired you to protect my rights,” he told the commission. “Property rights are the basis of this great experiment we call America.”
Opponents of the bill were equally adamant in their position, however. Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips penned a letter to the commissioners on behalf of Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT) pointing out the environmental concerns in changing the minor subdivision definition, which has stood since 1967.
“The greatest concern to ACT and its members is the change to seven lots, and the accompanying increase in septic systems, will make it nearly impossible for the county to meet its water quality TMDL goals for the Coastal Bays and Chesapeake Bay,” she wrote. “Along with agriculture, clean bays and beaches that are ‘swimmable’ and ‘fishable’ are the lifeblood of the county’s tourism economy.”
Instead of a broad strokes bill that would change the definition of all minor subdivisions, Phillips recommended that the Board of Zoning Appeals accept requests from private individuals and judge those on a case-by-case basis. More allowable lots on minor subdivision would lead to the installation of more septic systems and general development sprawl, said Phillips.
Resident Steve Taylor warned the commission about the effects such sprawl could have beyond environmental impact, including increased taxes and expenses for a county.
“If you think development doesn’t have infrastructure costs, you’re wrong,” he said. “I’ve seen it, I’ve witnessed it, and I’ve been involved in it.”
There was disagreement on that point. Resident Kellee Kennett, chair of the Worcester County Tea Party, asserted that sprawl is a “red herring,” especially in regards to harm to the coastal bays. Instead, she recommended the commission look to “other sources of waste” such as flawed wastewater processing across the bridge and the effects of Conowingo Dam.
The verbal fencing continued from there, with Dave Wilson, executive director for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program (MCBP), arguing that Conowingo Dam doesn’t impact Maryland’s coastal bays, while runoff from septic systems in the watershed very much does.
“We’re talking about nutrient issues,” he said.
In an opinion piece published locally, Wilson reiterated his opposition.
“… an increase in development by 40 percent would render it impossible to reach our water quality goals for the bays which are the foundation of our tourism and agricultural economy. Septic system pollution is a much bigger problem per acre than nutrient inputs from agriculture,” Wilson wrote. “Over the past five years, Worcester County has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars every year to get existing septic systems off line. It would be counterproductive to indiscriminately allow an estimated 2,000 more septic systems to pump hundreds of thousands of additional pounds of nutrients from human excrement into the bays behind Ocean City and Assateague.”
A lot of doubt remained among supporters of the bill that septic regulations are as crucial as they are being painted out to be to the watershed as opposed to the other so-called sources of waste. By tightening the leash with those regulations, some residents worried that farming as an industry is on the way out.
“The biggest threat to farming and forestry is regulation,” said resident Frank Gebhart.
Laura Dover, a member of the county Tea Party, had similar concerns.
“We need to treat farmers as an endangered species,” she said.
County Commissioner Virgil Shockley, a farmer himself, acknowledged that it sometimes seems like the industry is fading. Much of it, he continued, is because children born into farming families are not staying in the field and seeking a more stable source of income.
“If you’re going to save farming, you’ve got to have kids on the farm,” said Shockley.
One way to encourage that is to allow more lots on a minor subdivision, meaning a farmer can split his land between more children or even grandchildren, noted Shockley. Because if people are not born into farming, he contested that it is rare for them to choose the life. If farming does fade out, Shockley predicted that Worcester’s economy will crash.
“The economy of Worcester County is based on tourism and agriculture. I’ve said that a hundred times sitting up here,” he said. “Tourism and agriculture they go together. If we don’t protect our farmers by giving that shot for those kids to stay on that farm, you’re going to lose not just the farmers, you’re going to lose your economy.”
In contrast to Shockley’s passionate appeal, Commission President Bud Church suggested that everyone weigh the bill with no attachment or bias.
“I like to try to take the emotions out of it,” he said.
Church revealed that he was against the bill for a few reasons. Besides the environmental aspect, he pointed out that there does not appear to be much of a demand for splitting land into seven lots at the moment. The majority of the commission agreed, with Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw suggesting that more studies be done on the subject so a new minor subdivision definition can be considered the next time the county reviews its Comprehensive Plan.
Commissioner Jim Bunting was the only member of the body to side with Shockley in redefining minor subdivisions. He pointed out that no matter what the county does it remains “at the mercy of the state.”
“So we’d still need permission from the state. The comprehensive plan is not the answer,” Bunting said.
Bunting added that 16 counties have changed their definition of a minor subdivision to seven lots to get ahead of the state’s controversial Septics Bill. Because Worcester missed the Dec. 31 deadline to be included in that group, there’s no guarantee that even passing Bill 12-6 would have the desired impact. However, Bunting told the commission that he at least felt the need to try.
The majority of commissioners disagreed and Bill 12-6 was defeated 5-2 with Shockley and Bunting in favor and the rest opposed.