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Maryland Senate passes bill to limit septic systems

ANNAPOLIS — After days of delay and maneuvers that frustrated opponents and supporters alike, Maryland senators have approved a bill to regulate where new residential septic systems can be installed.

The legislation, passed by a 32-14 vote Tuesday afternoon, creates a four-tiered system that counties are expected to use to limit where residential septic systems can be located, especially in the most rural parts of the state.

The bill, which sat before the Senate for a week, is a priority of Gov. Martin O’Malley and has gone through several incarnations since the Democrat championed the issue last year as a way to reduce Chesapeake Bay pollution.

Opponents said the environmental advantages of the bill are minimal and the legislation hurts property values while financially handicapping farmers who may have counted on subdividing their land for income.

Sen. Barry Glassman pointed to steps farmers in Maryland have already taken to manage nutrient runoff and said the bill would unfairly lessen their property values by as much as 30 or 40 percent.

“I think it’s a pretty sad day when we do this and at the same time, out the other side of our mouth, we say we need to save agricultural land,” Glassman, R-Harford, said. “We want to save the land, but we don’t want to save the farmer.”

Some lawmakers say the bill was significantly weakened last week when senators amended it, taking away any ability of the state to overturn county development plans.

Under the amended bill if the state department of planning disagrees with the way a county has designed its tiers, the county will be required to take public input, but not mandated to make state suggested changes.

The amended method for developing the tiers, crafted by the O’Malley administration and presented by Sen. Thomas Middleton, D-Charles, mirror a late 1990s smart growth initiative in which counties are asked to meet development requirements to access state funds.

Joseph Bryce, O’Malley’s chief legislative council, said discretionary state funding and programs are incentive for counties to fall in line with the plan.

“You’re going to have some jurisdictions that are more inclined to work with you than others, but frankly our experience hasn’t been outright revolt,” Bryce said last week.

The bill now moves to the House of Delegates. Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he expects the lower chamber will sign off on the measure.

Miller called it a “compromise bill” that left senators on both sides of the issue unsatisfied.

He disputed assertions from Republican leaders that bill sponsors want to curb local development and are perpetuating a series of political and land use moves they refer to as a “war on rural Maryland.”

“It’s a war on people who don’t support smart growth. It was a war on people who want properties developed without roads, without schools without fire departments without police stations,” Miller said. “It’s a vote for planned development at the same time taking into consideration the needs and concerns the property owners.”