Opponents of Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s efforts to control suburban sprawl use the term to describe his proposed legislation to ban the construction of large subdivisions on septic systems in some rural areas.
But supporters of the governor’s planning efforts say the real “War on Rural Maryland” is something else. It’s the march of cookie-cutter developments with huge lawns (like the one above) across farmland, forests, and streams that feed the Chesapeake Bay.
“What a ‘War on Rural Maryland’ really is is having sprawling landscapes that threaten agribusiness, threaten the local rivers and bays, and pull growth out of great towns like Cambridge, Centerville, Salisbury and Berlin,” said Maryland Planning Secretary Richard Hall. “That’s a war on rural Maryland.”
Another perspective is taken by opponents of O’Malley’s Senate Bill 236 and House Bill 445, the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012. The foes of the bill include Richard Rothchild, a Carroll County Commissioner, who testified last week before a hearing of the senate Education, Health and Environment Committee on the legislation.
“A manufactured crisis, which exaggerates the effect that septic systems have on the Bay, is being used as a justification for a tyrannical power grab by Annapolis,” Rothchild said.“This is absolutely a manifest component of the war on rural Maryland.”
O’Malley appeared before the committee to make the case for limiting the construction of large subdivisions on septic in rural farming areas called “tier four” areas in a revised version of legislation proposed last year.
“The bottom line is that, by their very design, septic systems are intended to leak nitrogen into our Bay, and into our water tables,” O’Malley testified.
“Without this bill, 120,000 new septic systems will pump 2.5 million pounds of nitrogen into surface water by 2035. Total nitrogen pollution from septic systems will increase by 29 percent, and septic households will produce 10 times more nitrogen than houses on upgraded sewer,” O’Malley said. “With this bill, we can avoid …the installation of 50,000 new septic systems (and) prevent as much as 1.1 million pounds of nitrogen from being pumped into these waters.”
A house with an individual septic tank to handle its waste releases 6 to 10 times the nitrogen water pollution as a house served by a sewage treatment plant, according to state figures. Septic housing also gobbles up eight times the land as more compact housing on sewer systems, O’Malley said.
Maryland passed a “smart growth” law 15 years ago. But it failed to stop sprawl, because it did not have an enforcement mechanism. Now Governor O’Malley is trying to use restrictions on septic systems as a way to add teeth to the policy.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation supports O’Malley’s septic bill, but believes it could be strengthened by requiring all new construction on septic systems to use the best available technology to reduce nitrogen pollution.
“Over the last 10 years, two thirds of the land lost to development in Maryland has been farmland and forests,” according to written testimony CBF gave to the committee. “This type of growth is damaging to Maryland’s economy and environment and threatens the substantial effort and investment being made to meet Maryland’s share of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the Chesapeake Bay.”
Although the governor says he’s trying to save farmland for farmers, he’s running into some opposition from farm representatives.
Valerie Connelly, Government Relations Director for the Maryland Farm Bureau, said limiting the ability of farmers to subdivide their land for development is like taking money out of their bank accounts.
“You know, farmers don’t have 401 K plans, they don’t have retirement systems,” Connelly said. “Their retirement plan is whether they sell their land or sell a lot or can somehow eke out saving a little money as they go.”
More logical, Connelly said, is to increase state funding for voluntary state programs that pay farmers to put their land into conservation easements that prevent development.
To see the front lines of the battle, I took a drive with Rich Josephson, a director at the Maryland Department of Planning (pictured at top).
We cruised through farmland distinctive to Southern Maryland, with old tobacco barns, wood fences, grazing sheep, and trees shading the winding road.
But then we turned into a subdivision built on septic systems with wide lawns, cul-de-sacs, and no sidewalks. We got out near a “dead end” sign. Josephson explained why all these beige boxes plopped down in farmland are a road to nowhere.
“You could find these subdivisions not just in Maryland, you could find these types of subdivisions in Anywhere, USA,” Josephson said. “They don’t really build the character of a community. We have existing communities that do have character, and rather than concentrating efforts to enhance that character -– we end up with more of these,” he said, gazing across a vast and empty lawn.
How to prevent the loss of more farmland to sprawl like this?
Readers in Maryland should call or email their state senators and representatives and urge them to support Senate Bill 236 and House Bill 445 and stop the real assault on rural Maryland: poorly-planned developments on antiquated septic systems.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
UPDATE: On March 23, 2012, The Washington Post reported that Governor O'Malley's administation had agreed to weaken the bill, and take away proposed new state authority to reign in sprawl, following complains from county governments that they did't want to give up power over land-use decisions. The Post reported: "The retreat marked the second time in two years that O’Malley had weakened the proposal to try to win approval from the state legislature, which is controlled by Democrats."