Wicomico Council Weighs Tier Concept

SALISBURY – The Wicomico County Council continued a discussion regarding controversial septic legislation this week that started off as a conversation over notification letters and changed to whether property owners will really have a choice in whether to be included in a specific tier or not.

Earlier this year, Maryland enacted the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012 which requires counties to make a number of changes to their subdivision codes, including the adoption of a four-tier system for categorizing the development of land in the county and the determination of the type of sewer system that will serve the subdivisions in the tiers. The tier assessment comes as part of Senate Bill 236, also known as the Septic Bill.

Tiers II and III would allow major subdivisions to be built on septic systems in either a limited capacity or after a public hearing and approval of the Planning Commission, respectively.

Tiers I and IV would not allow any major subdivisions to be built on septic systems. Some counties, such as Worcester, could take advantage of an exception based on dwelling unit density that would remove the restrictions from Tier IV. While Worcester will almost certainly qualify for the exception, it seems unlikely Wicomico will.

In October, the County Council got over the first hurdle with the Septic Bill that instates within the Tier IV area residential subdivisions are not permitted without an exemption from the state.

Defined by county law, residential minor subdivisions can be served by on-site sewage disposal systems. At that time the council approved a definition of a “tier IV minor subdivision”, which will allow up to seven lots.

Each county is responsible for designating its own tiers. Once the jurisdictions have created a map, the next step is to forward it on to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) for review and comments.

Planning Director Keith Hall picked up where the discussion was left during the last meeting. To gain as much feedback as possible, the council wishes to establish a public participation program to notify rural property owners about the potential impacts associated with the bill.

At that time it was proposed to send a notification letter to about 7,000 rural property owners who may be potentially impacted by the bill at a cost of about $3,500. The council directed staff to find a way to reduce costs, and a suggestion was made to send out postcards, which resulted in cutting the cost in half.

Hall explained that 12,000 property owners were identified within the A1 Zoning District to receive the notification but that number was minimized when properties exclusively within the wetlands were eliminated because that land cannot be developed. Properties that are less than two acres with an improvement value of $10,000, which are considered rural subdivisions, were also eliminated.

“We know we would like to get rural property owners out at public hearings as well as these meetings to find out what their thoughts are about this bill … we dwindled this down to really if you own over two acres you are going to get a letter,” Hall said.

Council Vice President Bob Culver was concerned the proposed language did not express enough urgency in the matter.

A few weeks ago, Council President Matt Holloway suggested giving property owners the choice to volunteer to be included in Tier IV as a way to preserve their land but this week offered the opposite idea.

“What if we ask for people to opt out instead of opt in … I think we would have a larger response, it would get people’s attention,” Matt Holloway said. “Rather than just answering to what the state does it should be a county effort to create a preservation district for anybody who would like to be in it.”

Director of Administration Wayne Strausburg urged caution in using the term “opt out.”

“I don’t think we want to set ourselves up as giving people the impression that it is their selection to be in or out of Tier IV because the fact is as this thing plays out what property ends up in Tier IV may be beyond our control … what we are looking for are people who express an interest in not being included in Tier IV and we would consider that expression of interest,” he said.

Councilwoman Sheree Sample-Hughes pointed out there is no other circumstance where property owners have a choice on zoning.

“This is a good measure to notify the property owners because it is significant but it gets to a certain point where they may not have a choice and we have to vote on what is required to be done of the county,” she said.

Matt Holloway asserted if property owners do not have a choice to opt out he will not be voting on a tier map all together.

“I am not interested in cooperating with the state in zoning my land if they don’t give me the option of opting out,” he said. “That is where the line gets drawn.”

The council president postponed furthered discussion due to the absence of Councilwoman Stevie Prettyman. Staff was directed to return with the actual language to be included in the notification letter.