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Published On: 2/14/13

Septic Bill Continues To Divide Md. Stakeholders

By: Shawn J. Soper via Maryland Coast Dispatch

BERLIN -- The battle over the state’s “septic bill,” adopted last year by the General Assembly, reached a crescendo this week when farmers from all over Maryland, including the lower shore, rolled into Annapolis on tractors in protest in advance of a Senate committee hearing.

Last year, the General Assembly approved the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Act of 2012, also known as the “septic bill,” which, among other things, requires the counties to submit plans for a four-tier system into their planning and zoning maps directing where new growth and development should go. From the outset, opponents called the septic bill an attack on rural areas of Maryland including the lower shore and claimed the legislation was a blatant attempt by the state to wrest away decisions on planning and zoning issues from local governments and pass them along to state bureaucrats in Annapolis.

During the current session, Delegate Mike McDermott has introduced legislation seeking a repeal of the septic bill and Senator E.J. Pipkin has cross-filed the bill on the Senate side. McDermott’s bill reportedly was well received during its first committee hearing last week, and Pipkin’s bill was set for a hearing in a Senate committee on Tuesday. Before that hearing, however, farmers from all over Maryland including the Eastern Shore staged a unique rally during which they rolled through the streets of downtown Annapolis with tractors and other heavy farming equipment.

“Last year, the General Assembly took away decision-making authority from our local governments,” said McDermott this week. “In the name of preservation, they gave us restrictions and in the name of planning, they have now taken control. Currently, many local governments are waiting and hoping that some relief will come during the 2013 session and I am hoping to do just that with the repeal of Senate Bill 236.”

The Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Act of 2012 directs local jurisdictions to create a four-tiered system to direct future growth and development. Opponents of the septic bill and the associated tier system claim the legislation is an unveiled attempt by the state to wrest away decisions on planning and zoning issues from the local governments and pass them along to Annapolis and the Maryland Departments of Planning and the Environment. Proponents of the septic bill assert the tier system would make great strides in directing future growth and development away from sensitive ecological areas and afford greater protections to the Chesapeake and coastal bays.

Following the rally on Tuesday, already being called “tractorcade,” and the Senate committee hearing on Pipkin’s bill, environmental organizations issued statements in support of the septic bill and in opposition to the effort to repeal it.

“It is the job of state government to set broad parameters that protect water quality and the state’s rural lands,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation Executive Director Alison Prost in a statement this week. “No one person has the right to exploit our natural resources at the expense of others. While many counties are implementing the letter and spirit of last year’s legislation, some are trying to roll back that progress.”

Prost was referring to the lukewarm reception by local jurisdictions in accepting the septic bill and submitting their four-tier proposals. Just a handful of counties have complied thus far and many have not including the rural counties on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland. For example, Worcester and Wicomico have not submitted their implementation plans.

McDermott and other opponents have called the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Act of 2012 a “land grab” by the state in that it allegedly reduces a rural landowner’s ability to develop his or her property, curtails future subdivision of vast tracts of rural land and takes planning and zoning decisions away from the counties and places them in the hands of Annapolis bureaucrats. However, Prost said this week the septic bill does not represent a land grab by the state and will likely improve property values where the plans are implemented.

“Putting in place protections that encourage growth in areas that will generate less pollution makes common sense and will improve the quality of life for our children and future generations,” said Prost. “Those protections are not a ‘taking’ as some suggest. Instead, it enhances the value of agricultural lands and will help protect the fabric of rural Maryland.”

Prost encouraged those counties that have not drafted septic bill plans to do so.

“While cooperation between individuals, governments and businesses has delivered marked progress in reducing pollution to local waterways, we have a long way to go,” she said. “We have an ongoing responsibility to deliver a cleaner environment to future generations and in order to do so, we need all Marylanders to move forward with the implementation of last year’s septic and growth legislation.”