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O’Malley septic bill amended

ANNAPOLIS — A series of nine amendments to the O’Malley administration’s septic bill cleared the Senate, preserving longstanding control of septic use with local planning authorities.

“Land use is a very hot topic for local governments, and Maryland statute has always left local zoning to local authorities,” said Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles, who offered the amendments Friday night on behalf of the administration. “Those of us who came from local government take that right very seriously.”

The original bill would have centralized decisions over septic use in the Maryland Department of Planning and the Department of the Environment.

Early last week, the administration feared that rural Democrats and Republicans, historically protective of property rights, would not support the bill.

The amendments were adopted by a 31-14 vote with a core group of liberal Democrats voting against because the new changes would relinquish state control to the counties.

The bill, SB 236, was expected to pass the full Senate Monday night and then go to the House of Delegates.

The amendments killed the most controversial provision in the bill that would have given the Department of Planning final decision-making authority over how local jurisdictions establish a four-tier mapping system for septic use.

The amendments also struck down a provision in the bill that would give the Department of the Environment authority to deny permits for major subdivisions on septic systems if local governments had failed to follow the proposed state maps for tiers.

Middleton, a Charles County farmer, brokered the amendments with the administration, the Maryland Association of Counties, and interests representing developers and builders in the days leading up to Friday’s vote.

Under the amendments, the local jurisdictions can draw their own tier maps as long as they consult with the state planning department and hold a public hearing in the event there is disagreement between the state and a jurisdiction on the tier maps. But the local jurisdictions are not bound by the recommendations of state planners.

Tier-one areas are served by local water and sewer systems and are not designated growth areas under the bill.

Tier-two areas are planned growth areas where water and sewer will be extended from existing municipal water systems.

Tier-three is a mix of areas that allow septic use and also prohibit major subdivisions on septic in designated areas.

These areas are not planned for sewer and are a mix of agricultural and forest lands. The Tier-three language in the original bill drew much ire from farmers, builders and developers.

Farmers were especially concerned that tighter state controls on land use would lower property values, Middleton said.

Tier-four is designated as protected forest lands under the bill.

A “major” subdivision is eight lots or more per subdivision under the bill, but may vary depending on the county.

Middleton said the bill as amended still sets a national standard for smart growth.

“The bill really sets Maryland way out as national leader in moving development out of the rural areas and into more concentrated areas,” Middleton said. “It’s probably one of the most aggressive land use efforts that I’ve ever seen. … The bill stops a lot of development dead in its tracks.

“Counties will still be required to develop their tiers and they will be required to have them in their comprehensive plans,” said Middleton. “Hopefully at the end of the day, [the Department of Planning] and the local planning boards will agree on what the maps are.”

Middleton said the promise of state funding would keep the counties in step with the state’s designs for the tier system, similar to the way priority funding areas have been set up in the state.

“Every county in the state has adopted priority funding areas,” Middleton said. He said the state could simply withhold state aid if a county did not adopt the four-tier system.

Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery, said he was concerned about Middleton’s amendments and said state agencies should set the standard — similar to the way property taxes are assessed under the State Department of Assessments and Taxation.

“In order to make sure there is a standard that is statewide, we use a state agency to make a determination — because decisions to alter assessments have an impact on … state aid,” he said.

“I think it’s the same principle here,” Madaleno said. “The fundamental question before us is who makes the proper decision. In this case, I think we need to err on relying on the decisions of the state to insure there is a consistent policy statewide — because of the impact it has on infrastructure and the environment.”