House passes septic bill, rural lawmakers make last stand - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

House passes septic bill, rural lawmakers make last stand

By Daniel Menefee  

Floor debate in the House over the administration’s signature land preservation bill invoked common themes from Republicans about growing state control over rural and agricultural land use, but the bill passed with a vote of 93-45.

Del. Herb McMillan

Del. Herb McMillan

“This is not about oversight, this is about control,” said Del. Michael McDermott, R-Wicomico.  “You will literally shut down development in the rural parts of the state.”

The bill will require county governments to establish a four-tier system for septic use, aimed at protecting agricultural lands and forests. But Republican lawmakers say the bill is too restrictive and an affront to property rights.

The bill establishes the size and scale of major developments using septic systems and encourages a migration of development closer to priority funding areas that can be served by sewage treatment plants. Counties have until the end of the year to add their tier designations to their comprehensive plans.

McDermott referenced astronaut Neil Armstrong’s words during the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.

“That was one small step for a man, but this is one giant leap for this General Assembly when you step forward with this process,” McDermott said. “You are dictating a mandate by the state of Maryland over county governments…who have spent their time to debate how their county will grow and develop.”

Del. Mike Smigiel, R-Caroline Cecil, likened the bill to an authoritarian regime in Cambodia in the late 1970s.

“There is no compensation for the loss of property rights,” Smigiel said. “If you remember a few years back, if you’re a student of history, the Khmer Rouge came into power and moved everybody out of the cities, out into the country. We’re doing just the opposite.”

Environmental Matters Committee Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh, D-Montgomery, said the Senate bill was amended to give final decision making authority to local governments. Her Committee voted favorably on the Senate bill Wednesday.

The bill as amended requires local authorities to consult with the Maryland Department of Planning when drawing their tier maps, and hold a public hearing in the event the state and a local jurisdiction are in disagreement about the tier designations. The local authorities will have the final say, McIntosh said.

The bill initially drew objection from the Maryland Association of Counties, but they withdrew their objections when the bill was amended in the Senate.

Farmers are also concerned the development restrictions in the bill reduce the value of land and therefore reduce the equity they can borrow on to buy supplies and equipment.

Del. Herb McMillan, R- Anne Arundel, the only Republican to vote for the bill, said the amendments restored final authority to the locals to determine their tier designations. Without the amendments, he said he would be echoing the same sentiments as his Republican colleagues.

He indicated that the amendments were actually a victory for local governments and that lawmakers opposed to the original bill should declare victory.

“Sometimes…you should acknowledge that you won and move on,” McMillan said. “I served in local government and I think this a reasonable bill. I think it’s a good piece of legislation.”

Counties would establish septic tiers

Under the amendments, local jurisdictions can draw their own tier maps. They must consult with the state planning department and hold a public hearing if there is disagreement between the state and a jurisdiction. 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.

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Maryland Reporter is a daily news website produced by journalists committed to making state government as open, transparent, accountable and responsive as possible – in deed, not just in promise. We believe the people who pay for this government are entitled to have their money spent in an efficient and effective way, and that they are entitled to keep as much of their hard-earned dollars as they possibly can. Contact the author.

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