Delegate Aware Septic Bill Repeal Unlikely

BERLIN — While acknowledging its passage is likely a long shot, Delegate Mike McDermott (D-38B) last week introduced legislation that would repeal the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Act of 2012, or “septic bill”, passed by the General Assembly last year.

After considerable debate during the 2012 session, state lawmakers passed legislation the came to be known as the “septic bill,” which, among other things would require the counties to submit plans for a four-tier system into their planning maps directing where new development and growth should go. Under the plan, Tier I would include areas already served by public sewer systems and Tier II would include designated “growth areas” where plans are in place to extend public sewer lines in the future.

Tier III would represent areas where no future public sewer extensions are planned or are zoned for agricultural uses, but private septic systems can be installed as an alternative. Finally, Tier IV areas are designated as conservation areas where no public sewer extensions are planned, nor are septic systems allowed, essentially banning future growth and development.

Opponents of the septic bill and the associated tier system claim the legislation is an unveiled attempt by the state to wrest away decisions on planning and zoning issues from the local governments and pass them along to Annapolis and the Maryland Departments of Planning and the Environment. Proponents of the septic bill assert the tier system would make great strides in directing future growth and development away from sensitive ecological areas and afford greater protections to the Chesapeake and coastal bays.

McDermott, from the beginning, has called the septic bill a “land grab” by the state, which will hold sway over local land use issues from behind a desk in Annapolis and away from local elected officials and planners. To that end, McDermott has introduced legislation that would, if approved, repeal Senate Bill 236 and return control of land-use issues to the local governments who in his mind best understand their own growth and development plans.

“Last year, the General Assembly took away decision-making authority from our local governments,” he said this week. “In the name of preservation, they gave us restrictions, and in the name of planning, they have now taken control. Currently, many local governments are waiting and hoping that some relief will come during the 2013 session and I am hoping to do just that with the repeal of Senate Bill 236.”

The bill requires local governments to submit their four-tier plans to the Maryland Department of Planning and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) for approval. Opponents, including McDermott, said the legislation is particularly onerous in the rural counties and places undue burdens on farmers and owners of large tracts traditionally zoned for agriculture.

“The passing of last year’s ‘septic bill’ hurts farmers in the name of preserving them,” he said. “It takes away local sovereignty by employing a cookie cutter approach dictated by Annapolis bureaucrats. Maryland needs to recognize the importance of local farmers to our economy, the environment, our collective heritage and the economic viability of a vast portion of Maryland’s economy.”

Many worry the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Act of 2012 will impact farmers the most by restricting the subdivision of their land for development, thus curtailing their property values.

“This tier system has caused grief to many Marylanders who believe that the development restrictions will cause significant land devaluation at a time when their property values have already been reduced by the recessionary economy,” said McDermott. “Those who own farms are worried that a reduction of their land value will also mean a reduction of the money they can borrow for supplied and equipment when times are tight.”

Thus far, many of the rural counties, including the three counties of the lower shore, have not rushed to submit their four-tier plans to the state for approval although most have held public hearings and information sessions. McDermott said about a dozen county governments have not complied. For example, Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset have not submitted plans and Kent County is the only jurisdiction on the lower shore to have submitted its plan.

“They’re all waiting to see if we can make any changes to this,” he said. “People didn’t really know how much the bill would affect planning and zoning issues on the lower shore. … I’m not hopeful that it will happen and it might never seek the light of day, but it might provide an opportunity to voice some of the displeasure with the legislation. The worst case scenario is, it gets a hearing and people have a voice.”