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House signs off on bill to regulate septic use

ANNAPOLIS — The House of Delegates signed off Friday on a measure to limit where residential septic systems can be installed.

The House voted 93-45 to approve the bill, which dictates that counties create a four-tiered system to limit where new residential subdivisions can be located, especially in the state’s most rural areas.

The bill is a priority for 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.

It is one of several environmental bills backed by the administration this year. Two others — to increase the state’s tax on sewer bills and develop of offshore wind energy — are still before the legislature, which is scheduled to adjourn Monday night.

The state Senate passed the septic bill in March, and a House committee amended the bill to create reporting requirements and mandate that counties that do not adopt one of the tiers must document why.

The bill mirrors a late 1990s smart growth initiative in which counties were asked to meet development requirements to access state funds, officials have said.

“It’s not just about septics,” said Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Environmental matters Committee. “It’s about how we grow and how we develop and how we do residential housing in Maryland. This bill is about the future. Not about now.”

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

Some lawmakers say the bill was significantly weakened when the Senate 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.

At least one Delegate said that change made the bill palatable for people who originally thought it reached too far into local regulations.

Delegate Herb McMillan, who initially opposed the plan, said the changes helped him decide to vote for the bill.

“Sometimes when you win, it’s good to acknowledge that you won and move on,” McMillan, R-Anne Arundel, said while explaining his vote. “To me it sounds as though we are debating what was originally introduced, not what we just voted on.”

The bill now moves back to the Senate, where lawmakers are expected to accept the House version of the bill, said Joan Carter Conway, chairwoman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.