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Battle over septic regulations looms again

Rural development and how to regulate it will be atop the General Assembly’s agenda again in 2012.

The issue promises to be a replay of last session’s battle when legislation pushed by Gov. Martin O’Malley died after much debate and opposition from rural lawmakers. In response, the governor convened the Task Force on Sustainable Growth and Wastewater Disposal in April to study the issue further.

The work of the task force will be front and center for the development community this session along with the future use of tax increment financing, or TIFs, to finance development in cash-strapped local jurisdictions and the impact of the governor’s new sprawl-busting PlanMaryland initiative.

The septic system debate, though, appears to be the most pressing for development interests.

The task force’s report, released last month, recommends raising the residential “flush tax,” which helps pay for Chesapeake Bay cleanup, from $30 to $90 a year between 2013 and 2015 and a four-tier approach to new housing developments requiring septic systems.

The governor has said that septic systems, especially aging ones, leach pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorous into the ground, and are a major source of contamination, which ultimately finds a way into the bay. He endorsed limiting development of housing projects on septic-only systems to five or fewer units, which touched off heated debate in the General Assembly.

During a press briefing in late December, O’Malley pledged to revisit the septic system issue through new legislation possibly aimed at restricting or halting new septic-only housing developments near water.

Just what those bills will look like is a mystery, but the governor’s thoughts on the topic are not.

O’Malley referred to limiting new septic systems as “halting the proliferation of massive septic housing developments” in the state, particularly in rural areas where public water and sewer extensions are costly and rare. Future development patterns show that over the next 25 years, about 26 percent of new state residential building will be on septic-only, or rural, lots.

“The science is pretty clear,” O’Malley said. “We have consumed more land since the day I graduated high school [in 1981] than we had consumed in all the prior years since Europeans founded this colony.

“It makes absolutely no sense in a purely dollars and cents, economic standpoint to be making investments in three of these areas while we look the other way at installing massive septic housing developments that are, by their very design, supposed to pollute the water and the groundwater and maybe even the aquifers.”

Lobbyists for Maryland homebuilders say they can’t argue with that theory, but they are hoping to find middle ground during the session.

They cite the recommendations of the task force that deal with areas identified by local and state officials for sewer systems and areas not designated for future growth as well as a refusal to cap future development in specific designated growth areas where septic systems would be allowed.

“We’re anticipating what this new bill will look like — and we have also heard the governor is still looking at a [septic-only residential building] ban,” said Kathleen Maloney, lobbyist for the Maryland State Builders Association, a trade group or residential builders and developers that represents 1,500 members.

“We don’t have any specifics in how he’s going to proceed.”

Michael Harrison, director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, which has 800 company-members, said his group supports an increase in the “flush tax” and a push to mandate installation of high-tech, expensive new septic systems within 1,000 yards of an impaired body of water. But a ban on septic-only housing development crosses the line, Harrison said.

“Our small custom builders and developers are concerned that it’s a job killer,” he explained. “This ban would only affect the small custom guys, not the large national building companies. Much of the land owned in rural parts of the state is owned by individuals looking to develop or sell a plot or two, and this legislation would affect them.”

Tom Ballentine, vice president for public policy and government relations for the commercial development group NAIOP Maryland, said the issue affects his members because it relates to funding future growth in rural areas.

“There’s some big questions as to whether there’s enough sewer capacity to absorb the new houses and whether the roads, water, sewer, public safety and other areas” are ready to hold such growth if public systems are built in the event of a septic-only housing development ban, Ballentine said. “That’s a secondary issue, important to us.”

Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, head of the task force and also chair of the House Environmental Matters Committee, said she expects a harder fight on the septic issue than last year’s.

“Septics are allowed in every tier, just more restrictive in rural preservation and rural village areas,” McIntosh said in an email. “It must be noted that counties can designate growth areas that include farms. In fact there will be ample opportunity for farmers to convert land to development especially around priority funding areas and designated growth areas. However, we are recommending that septics be part of a permit process that measures and applies offsets for water quality.”

Del. Stephen Lafferty, D-Baltimore County, a member of the task force, said the four-tier recommendations were designed to help phase in controls in rural areas of the state.

“We really used the science to determine the impact rather than some arbitrary numbers as to how many units were to be built,” Lafferty said of the report.