Ho­gan roll­back will send smart growth swirling down the drain

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - Com­mu­nity Voice By TOM HOR­TON

Bay Jour­nal News Ser­vice

Crit­ics claim­ing Gov. Larry Ho­gan’s roll­back of mod­ern sep­tic tank re­quire­ments will mod­estly in­crease Ch­e­sa­peake Bay pol­lu­tion are mis­guided.

It’ll be a lot worse than they think.

Ho­gan’s ad­min­is­tra­tion is open­ing the gate not only for more-pol­lut­ing sep­tic sys­tems, but for a lot more of them — for a re­turn to the sprawl de­vel­op­ment that Mary­land has spent most of the last 20 years try­ing to chan­nel into smarter, cleaner growth.

Most of the 465,000 sep­tic tanks that serve Mary­land homes not hooked to sewage treat­ment plants aree one step up from out­houses and cesspools. They re­move bac­te­ria, but not the ni­tro­gen, from wastes flow­ing to ground­wa­ter, streams and rivers, and ul­ti­mately to the Bay, where it de­grades aquatic life.

The new­est sep­tics re­move twice as much ni­tro­gen, but not nearly as much as do Mary­land’s rapidly up­grad­ing sewage treat­ment plants.

In Septem­ber, the Mary­land Depart­ment of the En­vi­ron­ment said the state will no longer re­quire ni­tro­gen-re­mov­ing sep­tics, ex­cept on lots close to the wa­ter. This will make it cheaper for de­vel­op­ers to build in ru­ral land­scapes.

The ties be­tween sep­tic tanks and the coun­try­side are widely un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated. State health laws have long served as a crude sub­sti­tute for more pro­tec­tive ru­ral zon­ing, which bars de­vel­op­ment on sig­nif­i­cant acreages where soils were too soggy, too sloped, too rocky to pass “per­co­la­tion” tests re­quired to site sep­tic tanks.

“With­out sep­tic, you don’t have sprawl,” said Richard Hall, who was Mary­land’s sec­re­tary of plan­ning for eight years un­der Gov. Martin O’Mal­ley, Ho­gan’s pre­de­ces­sor.

His­tor­i­cally, in the ab­sence of pro­tec­tive ru­ral zon­ing, sep­tic perc tests steered de­vel­op­ment to­ward prime farm soils and big­ger lots — to­ward the sub­ur­ban sprawl that’s well doc­u­mented to in­crease air pol­lu­tion through more driv­ing, raise taxes as coun­ties ex­tend ser­vices and gob­ble up an av­er­age eight times as much land per house­hold than do homes con­nected to sew­ers.

So with Mary­land look­ing at a pro­jected in­crease of 1 mil­lion peo­ple and 500,000 house­holds by 2040, one of the big­gest ques­tions for the en­vi­ron­ment and for qual­ity of life is this: How many will be on sew­ers, how many on sep­tic?

Min­i­miz­ing sep­tic tanks seemed the log­i­cal an­swer to Hall and his boss, O’Mal­ley. In 2012, they crafted a widely ac­cepted law that dra­mat­i­cally lim­ited de­vel­op­ment on sep­tic tanks wher­ever the land­scape was “pre­dom­i­nantly agri­cul­ture and for­est.” About the same time, O’Mal­ley re­quired all new sep­tics to re­move ni­tro­gen, mak­ing sprawl de­vel­op­ment more ex­pen­sive, but also less pol­lut­ing.

Some ru­ral coun­ties chafed, most no­tably Ce­cil County. Of­fi­cials there sub­mit­ted for state plan­ning’s re­view a zon­ing map that es­sen­tially said “in your face” to re­stric­tions on sep­tic- based de­vel­op­ment on farms and forest­land. A county plan­ning of­fi­cial com­pared then- Sec­re­tary Hall to Adolf Hitler.

The sep­tic “tier map­ping law” as it is known, left ul­ti­mate land use power with the coun­ties; but it gave Hall’s Depart­ment of Plan­ning, and the MDE broad lat­i­tude to pres­sure coun­ties into com­pli­ance, even to hold up de­vel­op­ment if it was con­trary to the law’s anti- sprawl in­tent.

Ho­gan has qui­etly re­versed all of this. Let­ters sent to Ce­cil County from both his en­vi­ron­ment and plan­ning de­part­ments say, in ef­fect, the county can go its own way.

The sig­nals from the state are clear, not just to Ce­cil, but to Calvert, Queen Anne’s and other ru­ral coun­ties un­der growth pres­sure. They need no longer fear state in­ter­ven­tion against sprawl. Smart growth is out; dumb growth is back.

The ma­jor­ity of Mary­land coun­ties have largely com­plied with the new law’s re­quire­ment that “Tier Four” lands, those where farms and forests pre­dom­i­nate, al­low only mi­nor de­vel­op­ment on sep­tic, which is to say only lim­ited de­vel­op­ment.

But there’s lit­tle now to keep them from back­slid­ing, and you can bet that’s not go­ing to be lost on the de­vel­op­ment com­mu­nity, a pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal force at the county level ev­ery­where.

State plan­ners these days “pay more at­ten­tion to the ca­sual Fri­days dress code” than they do to Smart Growth laws, said long­time land use ad­vo­cate Dru Schmidt- Perkins, head of 1000 Friends of Mary­land.

“The mes­sage to the coun­ties is, ‘ Do what you want’,” Hall said of his old depart­ment.

Fifty thou­sand new sep­tic sys­tems would be pre­vented from be­ing in­stalled in ru­ral land­scapes, the O’Mal­ley ad­min­is­tra­tion cal­cu­lated when its 2012 law went into ef­fect. No one should ex­pect that now. We can’t know yet how many will be built, but we know most won’t have to con­trol ni­tro­gen.

Ho­gan might have helped de­vel­op­ers with­out harm­ing the en­vi­ron­ment if he had looked at why less pol­lut­ing sep­tic tanks cost so much — $10,000 to $ 15,000 apiece.

I’ve seen them done well for half that, by Rich Piluk, a san­i­tar­ian in Anne Arun­del County. I had one in­stalled my­self. But ap­par­ently only a few big com­pa­nies met the state’s re­quire­ments for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and ac­count­abil­ity. It’s been sug­gested coun­ties could set up their own sep­tic man­age­ment dis­tricts to lower costs.

But it’s eas­ier to tout Mary­land as “open for busi­ness,” with talk of “get­ting the state off your backs.” With poli­cies that reach well be­yond gut­ting sep­tic re­stric­tions — such as shift­ing trans­porta­tion money from mass tran­sit to more roads — Ho­gan seems de­ter­mined to de­feat the “war on ru­ral Mary­land” that his sup­port­ers claim O’Mal­ley waged. “Vic­tory” for them means a re­turn to sprawl de­vel­op­ment.

Tom Hor­ton has writ­ten about Ch­e­sa­peake Bay for more than 40 years, in­clud­ing eight books. He lives in Sal­is­bury, where he also is a pro­fes­sor of En­vi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies at Sal­is­bury Univer­sity. Dis­trib­uted by Bay Jour­nal News Ser­vice.

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