County Digs Deeper Into State’s Septic Changes

SNOW HILL — The Worcester County Planning Commission got an in-depth look last week at what Senate Bill 236, also known as the “septic bill,” will mean for the county.

While no action was taken, the commission will only have until Jan. 1 to decide whether to recommend accepting the plan, which would divide Worcester up into a series of tiers.

“I believe it’s more of a land use bill than anything else,” said County Development Review and Permitting Director Ed Tudor.

Tudor told the commission that he and his office have been keeping a watchful eye on SB 236 as it “worked its way through legislation last session.”

Accepting the changes outlined in the law will divide the county into four separate tiers. In Tier I, all major subdivision development would need to be connected to public sewer, without the option of using septic. However, to be tier one land must already have public sewage available.

In Tier II, some septic would be allowed. In Tier III, developments using septic would be allowed but only after the Planning Commission holds an individual public hearing for each property making that request.

Like Tier I, Tier IV would also prevent any major subdivision development on septic. However, if the county at large meets a one dwelling unit per 20 acres density, it can opt to be exempt from Tier IV’s restrictions entirely.

“We will qualify for that exception,” Tudor said.

Tudor added that, in his opinion, “the best thing you can do is be exempt” from the Tier IV restrictions. While the overreaching goal of SB 236 is to reduce nitrates in the Chesapeake Bay by promoting the use of established public sewer as opposed to new septic systems, which tend to increase runoff, Tudor noted that the bill can be a bit extreme in its methods.

“There are tons of other provisions to this bill,” he said.  
Tier IV especially was something Tudor felt could damage development.
“It could be a big issue for a lot of counties,” he said.

With only a few other counties in the state likely qualifying, Worcester should have the option to simply opt out in the case of Tier IV.

Still, County Commissioner Madison Bunting, who attended the meeting, was wary of adopting the plan at all.

“This is just another arm of Plan Maryland,” he said.

The County Commissioners chose not to accept Plan Maryland earlier this year, viewing it as overly restrictive. In Bunting’s opinion, SB 236 was the political equivalent of a backdoor strike by Annapolis.

“Plan Maryland is going to pick up where this takes off,” he said.
County Attorney Sonny Bloxom held similar reservations.
“Maybe the best thing is not to do anything,” he said.

While accepting the bill wasn’t mandatory, Tudor explained that leaving the issue in limbo, neither accepting nor denying, would carry its own consequences.

“If you don’t adopt tier plans, you can’t approve any major subdivision on septic anywhere,” he said, adding that that rule wouldn’t come into effect until the Jan. 1, 2013 deadline is breached.

Whether the Planning Commission gives a favorable recommendation, it will still need to go through the County Commission before a final decision is reached. Tudor’s office has already drawn up maps identifying the various tier zones throughout Worcester.

“These maps will eventually be incorporated into the Comprehensive Plan,” he said.

If the county wishes to move ahead with accepting the bill, the maps will also need to be submitted to the Maryland Department of Planning for comment. Bunting, still wary, advised Tudor to carefully “make sure everything is mapped correctly.”