An important Maryland state senator and Governor Martin O’Malley this week turned up the heat on rogue counties that have refused to follow a 2012 state law designed to limit suburban sprawl and reduce water pollution.
To loud applause from the crowd of 400 environmental activists at the annual Maryland Legislative Environmental Summit meeting in Annapolis on Tuesday, State Senator Joan Carter Conway, chair of the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee, suggested she might support legislation to strengthen the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012 (also called the “septic bill”) to add penalties to counties that flout the law and fail to protect farmland and forests.
“I was a little upset about the way a number of counties had actually divided up their landscapes,” Conway told the crowd. “We need to be a lot greener….A carrot may be better, but I like the stick.”
In response to the “septic bill,” two of Maryland’s fastest growing counties –- Frederick and Cecil -– have submitted planning maps to the state that leave most of their farmland and wooded areas open to large developments on high-pollution septic systems. This is not in compliance with the law, which directs counties to allow large developments not in rural areas, but instead in towns and areas to be served by sewer systems and sewage treatment plants, which produce far less water pollution than septic systems.
Speakers at the legislative summit meeting addressed a range of wide range of issues. These included the environmental priorities of a various environmental groups, such as wind power, deposits for bottles and bags to encourage recycling, funding for Chesapeake Bay cleanup, improved study of pesticides, and a potential temporary legislative moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. State Senate President Thomas “Mike” Miller predicted that a wind power bill would finally pass the General Assembly session this year, after two years of the failure of similar legislation.
But elected officials and activists at the meeting also warned that they must protect against efforts to overturn important environmental legislation passed last year, especially the “septic bill.” So far, only about half of Maryland’s counties have submitted planning maps to comply with the law. Some counties some may be watching Harford and Cecil counties to see if they also can get away with ignoring the smart planning legislation.
“There are some county councils throughout our state that say, ‘We don’t give a damn!” O’Malley said. “’We don’t care about saving the Bay, or paving the Bay. Don’t tell us how to use our land!’ But you know what? I’ll guess that there are people in Frederick (and the other counties)…who care just as much as you do about the health of their waters and the health of the Bay. So we need to make sure we have an educated electorate, an electorate that is aware, and ask their county commissioners, ‘Why are (you) still going down this path of putting in the septic McMansion fields, when we all understand how bad it ultimately is?’”
By controlling sprawl and the inappropriate use of old-fashioned septic systems, the “septic bill” aims to protect more than 100,000 acres of farms and forests across Maryland. The law would also prevent 1.1 million pounds of nitrogen pollution from flowing into Chesapeake Bay tributaries over the next 25 years, according to the Maryland Department of Planning.
State lawmakers who represent voters in Frederick and some other rural counties have introduced legislation – House Bill 106 – that would overturn the “septic bill.” This would deal a serious setback to efforts to clean up the Bay and comply with 2010 EPA pollution limits for the estuary.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation