Commissioners Vote to Loose Spray Irrigation Laws

SNOW HILL – With one modification, the Worcester County Commissioners passed zoning legislation intended to open up more land to spray irrigation wastewater disposal at their Tuesday meeting.

The County Commissioners approved an additional clause permitting non-governmental entities to own and operate spray irrigation systems, with the proviso that operators be licensed by the state of Maryland. State law requires licensed operators for government-owned spray facilities.

The new county law, written to reduce the size of the buffer on spray irrigation land and to increase the zoning designations allowed to host the spray systems, was not originally meant to extend to non-government owned spray facilities, but a public hearing in April generated a call for equality.

“If Worcester County is serious about spray irrigation, then by God, support it, encourage it,” land use attorney Mark Cropper said at that public hearing. “There is no good reason to distinguish between private and public facilities. Please revise this and make it equitable for everybody.”

Commissioner Bud Church called the restriction to government facilities a travesty. There should be a level playing field, he felt.

“It was a fair bill. It should be for everybody,” Commission President Virgil Shockley said.

The ability to use spray irrigation for disposal is not just for housing developments, but could be used by a campground like Frontier Town, he said.

Staff originally recommended a more cautious approach, but did not protest when the commissioners agreed with the change.

“I take the more conservative approach as a staff person,” Development Review and Permitting Director Ed Tudor, who prepared the legislation, said after the meeting. “I’m not going to be the one to be real far-reaching.”

He said he is not bothered by the commissioners’ decision to add private systems to the bill, adding that the requirement that operators be licensed is a good idea.

“If they screw up, they’re fined. They go to jail,” Shockley said. “The people running that plant are liable for that plant if they’re licensed.”

The county does not currently operate or own any spray land. Although the Lighthouse Sound and Glen Riddle wastewater plants are a county responsibility, the spray systems are the domain of the developments’ golf course operators, who use the treated effluent to irrigate the golf courses.

The legislation will permit spray land sites in most zones now, with approval of the Worcester County Board of Zoning Appeals, opening up far more land for spray irrigation.

Effluent disposal through land application is a prominent tenet of the 2006 Worcester County Comprehensive Plan, and the Worcester County Planning Commission endorsed the bill.

“We put it in the Comprehensive Plan for a reason,” said Shockley. “This is the preferred method. This is the way we’re going to go. We set the standard.”

The narrower setbacks will allow smaller pieces of land to be used, adding to the possible spray land inventory. Spray sites must still conform to state of Maryland regulations on appropriate soils.

Commissioner Louise Gulyas expressed some doubt that much land would be opened up to spray disposal, because good soils for spray irrigation are also good for development. “The Davis-Taylor Farm, that’s good soil out there,” she said.

Builders could be required in future to do spray irrigation, although Worcester County does not mandate spray disposal.

“The bill we just passed puts the onus on the builders now,” said Shockley.

Builders might not be required across the board to put in spray, Commissioner Bud Church said.

“If they don’t have the soils they may have to put in a different plant,” he said. “We’re going to look at each one on a case by case basis.”

The new regulations on setbacks for county spray land will also allow use of the purple pipe concept, where highly treated effluent is used to irrigate government land like parks and road medians, and which is sometimes extended to home irrigation use.

“Before, you couldn’t have sprayed in a development because the zoning district wouldn’t have been one in which it was permitted,” Tudor said.

Using highly treated effluent for irrigation via the purple pipe could have many practical uses in Worcester, according to Gulyas, who expressed a desire for the county to be on the cutting edge of the technology.

“I know a lot of people who would love to have that,” she said. “I would like Worcester County to become a trial area for that. I think that would be wonderful.”

The state of Maryland has been very cautious about re-using even high quality effluent for irrigation in human spaces, and is just now concluding a report on the matter, but other states, notably Florida, have used purple pipes with no problems.

The Commissioners listened to a brief update on the change to the zoning legislation at the Tuesday meeting, before voting unanimously, and with no discussion, to approve the new law.