Changes Needed In Coastal Bays’ Critical Area Law

SNOW HILL – The Coastal Bays Critical Area is due for some regulatory changes, staff informed the Worcester County Commissioners this week.

New septic systems in the Coastal Bays Critical Area will be required in the future to install pre-treatment technology to reduce nutrient loading on local waters. Consequently, the county must amend the Critical Area Law and will also pursue a water and sewer plan amendment to effect the change.

“It definitely should be an amendment to the Critical Area. It should be very simple to do,” said county attorney Sonny Bloxom.

Currently, new or repaired septic systems over 5,000 gpd under state law must seek a groundwater discharge permit from Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), which tends to require an 8 mg/l total nitrogen limit. Smaller systems are not required to do so.

MDE has also drafted requirements mandating that all new large systems in the coastal bays or Chesapeake watersheds install pre-treatment, but those regulations are not yet official.

Worcester County’s Coastal Bays Critical Area is home to 1,479 septic systems and the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area in the county hosts 163.  Unbuilt lots could add another 709 septics to the Coastal Bays Critical Area and 34 to the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area.

Requiring pre-treatment in the critical areas could reduce nutrients by the same amount that the Ocean Pines wastewater plant discharges.

The amended local critical area law will apply only to new systems, and not repaired systems, when it is passed.

The county has been using flush tax funds to add pre-treatment technology to existing large septic systems in the critical area, reducing the burden on some property owners.

Some changes have been made in other areas at the state level to the Critical Area Law, which went into effect July 1, 2008.

“There will be changes in our local program to implement House Bill 1253. We’re not ready to do so yet,” said Development Review and Permitting director Ed Tudor.

The changes were made to enhance enforcement, streamline program fairness, consistency, and predictability.

Some changes include the expansion of the 100-foot buffer to 200 feet in the resource conservation area for new subdivisions, though existing lots are not affected.

“This actually puts a lot more emphasis on enforcement,” said Tudor.

Licensed contractors, builders, tree experts, shore erosion control experts, and landscapers can lose their licenses for Critical Area infractions under the changed law.

Fines will now be required for violations. Worcester County has always tried to work with the property owner to correct the problem rather than impose a fine.

Tudor said he is talking with Critical Area Commission staff to find a way to avoid fines for minor infractions.

“They were very amenable to our way of dealing with things,” Tudor said.

Shoreline stabilization must now be nonstructural, such as the creation of marsh, except where MDE allows an exception.

“You’re going to see less and less rip-rap and bulkhead,” Tudor said. “The focus is going to be on soft shorelines.”

The soft shoreline regulation will apply to new stablization. “You’re not talking about taking bulkhead out,” said Tudor.

 MDE will develop new maps using new aerial mapping technology.

Tidal wetlands information is “drastically out of date,” Tudor said. He added, “You’re going to have some people who are really happy, and some who are really sad.”

“The mapping is going to be critical,” Commissioner Judy Boggs said.

Growth allocation requests must now be assessed using a list of factors, such as consistency with the local comprehensive plan, coastal flooding, economic benefit, and density.

“It’s going to be extremely difficult to award,” said Tudor. “It’s going to be really tough, really really tough.”

Changes to lot coverage regulations, governing impervious surface, will streamline project reviews.

“It’s basically a simpler process, and an easier way of looking at it,” Tudor said.

Another change requires the county to hold off on issuing permits for thirty days after a variance is granted to allow the state Critical Area Commission time to review and appeal the variance.

Worcester County is ahead of the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Law, because the Coastal Bays law was established later, and incorporates some of the changes, according to Tudor.