By Becca Heller
Residents of the Eastern Shore and other parts of rural Maryland are up in arms to defend their land rights which they believe are under threat as a result of last year’s environmental legislation commonly referred to as the Septic Bill.
Dozens of farmers and Maryland-natives rallied behind Del. Michael McDermott, R-Worcester, at a hearing Wednesday in the House Environmental Matters Committee on McDermott’s proposal to repeal the controversial bill. The bill has 24 co-sponsors, all of them Republicans.
“It amounts to nothing more than a confiscation of our private property,” said Jerry Miller, a farmer who had come to the hearing with his son to support the repeal. “Our city cousins don’t seem to understand. Our land is as much a home as our house is.”
The Septic Bill, officially known as the Sustainable Growth and Preservation Act of 2012, was signed into law last year to help improve the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed. The law prohibits large developments in rural areas using septic systems to limit the nutrients from septic systems seeping into the bay and its tributaries underground.
Property rights vs. environmental protection
While the bill is considered by some as a violation of local rule and property rights, it is seen by others as an critical key to environmental preservation within the state — one that is essential to improving the health of the Chesapeake Bay and ecosystems across the region.
“The quality of life is at stake,” said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, referring to the threat of the repeal. “Current projections show we are at risk of losing 400,000 acres of farmland to sprawl development over the next 35 years if the counties do not take this issue seriously and plan for smarter development.”
The bill passed last year with the environmental concerns at the center. Most Republicans and rural legislators voted against the bill.
McDermott’s concerns have less to do with the environmental impact of the Septic Bill and more to do with the “failure to recognize the autonomy of local governments.” McDermott told the committee that he firmly believed that matters of land use should be decided by county governments and residents, without state interference.
Sponsor wants power in local hands
“It’s up to those people that live there,” McDermott said. “It falls upon them and their local government advocates because that’s when government is closest to the people.”
Last year’s legislation forces county governments to establish four tiers of development, including areas served by water and sewer where new development is encouraged and a tier where little building with septic systems is allowed.
McDermott also made a brief economic case based on the fiscal note of his bill, emphasizing the growth that was projected if the Septic Bill were repealed. The fiscal note said lifting the limitations on development would likely result in local economic growth.
“If that’s true…then the adverse is also true. If you maintain the provisions [of the Septic Bill] our economy will suffer, we will not grow locally…and our people will pay for it,” McDermott said.
Bay advocates say development unsustainable
However, representatives ofr the Chesapeake Bay Foundation asserted that the economic growth would be unsustainable and ultimately harmful to the state economy.
“If we’re not going to prevent the problem [of pollution caused by development] then we need to find a way to pay for the costs to fix it,” said Erik Fisher, land-use planner with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “The price tag to clean up the existing amount of pollution has been mentioned as high as $14 billion. If this act was repealed it could add to the cost by as much as 25%.”