Some Permitting Delays Shortened

SALISBURY – Environmental health officials in Wicomico County say permitting delays have eased, but concerns remain over staffing.

Wicomico County Health Officer Lori Brewster and Environmental Health Acting Director Dan Williams came before the Wicomico County Council last week with an update on permitting delays within the health department’s environmental health division.

“I do want to give you a summary in the overall increase in applications we are seeing across the county,” Brewster told council members.

In recent months, Wicomico’s septic issues have taken center stage as county leaders have met with real estate agents, developers and officials with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to discuss failing septic systems.

In addition to state regulations and soil standards making it difficult and costly to install and replace septic systems, officials noted staffing shortages at the health department have led to months-long permitting delays.

Brewster noted the department had reported a 48% increase in building permits, a 91% increase in new construction permits and a decrease in land evaluations. She added permits for tank-only septic replacements declined 36% in Wicomico, but permits for complete septic system replacements had increased.

“Replacement systems are up 22%, which is of concern because that means we’ve got failing septic issues,” she said.

Despite upticks in permit applications, Brewster noted completion times for processing those permits had improved.

“You will see the completion times are generally declining, which is a good thing,” she said. “I will tell you when we see an increase, sometimes that can be related to weather because you don’t want us out there trying to perc a piece of property in the rain, or just issues with the type of system having to go through approval with the Maryland Department of the Environment.”

Williams added the number of completed permit applications had also improved.

“Taking a snapshot of July and August, in 2019 we had 64 applications completed in that time period,” he said. “In 2020 we had 68. In 2021 we’ve had 104. So our numbers are going up.”

Councilman John Cannon noted permit applications for septic replacements took an average of two months to approve. He questioned how that compared to other counties.

“I would say we are probably two to three weeks longer,” Williams replied.

But officials attributed those delays to staffing shortages.

“We had a candidate that was extremely interested in coming … and he had to turn us down,” Williams said. “He can’t afford to live here on that salary.”

He told council members the starting salary for an environmental specialist within his department was about $38,000.

“And that’s for a college graduate with a degree in the sciences,” he said. “There’s also a one-year training experience, and he’s required to do that at his own expense to obtain his license. There’s a $200 licensing fee.”

Brewster said the Maryland Joint Chairmen’s Report highlighted potential salary increases for environmental specialists, and that health officers and environmental health directors have asked for annual salary reviews.

“The positions are in the state system … the county budget is funding them,” she said. “But just because the county’s funding them does not mean I can increase the salary to those positions. That is dictated by the state.”

Cannon, however, suggested the acting county executive and county council send a letter supporting a salary increase.

“We’re paying the bill,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be better for us to send a letter, for us to appeal to whomever?”

Brewster said it would be beneficial. She also suggested supplemental funding for environmental health positions.

“In other jurisdictions, the county realizes there is a pay inequity with the private sector, and they provide supplemental funding for the positions in environmental health,” she said. “So that could be a possibility of a faster fix if we can look into that.”

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.