As expected, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposed ban on septic system went over like the proverbial lead balloon for many Marylanders earlier this month, particularly those of us on the rural Eastern Shore.
In his State of the State address, the governor announced his intention to seek a ban on septic system use in new developments. Within a couple weeks, legislation was floating through the House and Senate in Annapolis to prohibit local governments from approving new projects that would be served by septic systems.
O’Malley’s intentions are sound here — he wants to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay once and for all and do so by reducing the proliferation of septic systems, which he believes “are intended to leak sewage ultimately into our bay and into our water tables.”
The problem here is O’Malley’s proposal comes at a time when the housing industry generally is hurting and starving for work, hoping merely for some consistent jobs rather than dreaming of the boom days of the mid-2000s.
What makes matters worse is the state’s Critical Areas law already prevents the installation of any new septic systems within 100 feet of the shoreline. We realize that alone does not prevent sewage from leaking into the waterways, but it’s surely important to note, along with the fact local governments are generally aware connecting new housing units to public systems is the way to go.
The problem is that’s not always possible in rural areas, like most of Worcester and Wicomico counties. It becomes a matter of practicality and financial limitations many times. Stripping local governments of their authority at any time is dangerous territory, but this move comes at a perilous time for real estate and construction industries that are desperately trying to gain some recovery momentum.
Senator Jim Mathias and Delegate Mike McDermott railed against the proposal last week, but their voices are largely muted in Annapolis on issues like this that impact rural areas more so than the more populated and represented urban districts. Nonetheless, their points are valid.
Mathias said, “Naturally, everybody I’ve talked to is very concerned. We need to maintain our local management, our zoning and planning practices that are in place after careful consideration and study of these issues.”
McDermott said, “Good planning is best performed at the local level. Infusing more centralized power into the Maryland Department of Planning is not the answer when it comes to encouraging smart growth initiatives. In fact, several counties on the shore are already utilizing best growth practices when it comes to this issue.”
Wicomico County Councilman Matt Holloway weighed in as well, saying, “I can understand no septic in the critical areas, but the problem is not with septic systems, the problem is with failing septic systems. I think a broad brush ban on all septic systems is irresponsible.”
The governor and the legislature need to reconsider this change. It will drastically hurt the shore, as well as other rural areas in Western Maryland, and that needs careful consideration.
Contrary to what Annapolis may think, local governments understand moving away from septic systems is the way to go. They have a proven history of trying to steer in that direction, but the infrastructure is simply not there yet on the shore to forbid septic systems in all cases, as O’Malley desires.
This ban and subsequently transferring the decision making to the state will devastate new housing projects on the shore at a time when recovery is in its most fragile infancy.