The state's top environmental official has chastised Howard County officials for allowing developers to build too densely near two reservoirs and has suspended the county health officer's authority to approve plans.
Jane T. Nishida, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), has expressed concern about the "cumulative impact" on the Triadelphia and T. Howard Duckett reservoirs, which are on the Patuxent River at the border with Montgomery County.
State regulations require that homes be built on lots of at least 2 acres within 2,500 feet of reservoirs to curb the impact of septic systems and wells. That requirement "has been ignored," she complained in a letter May 7 to County Executive James N. Robey, because the county has allowed developers to build on lots of 1.5 acres or less.
Robey -- who promised in his campaign last fall to reduce density near the reservoirs -- defended the county policy of clustering homes on smaller lots as consistent with Gov. Parris N. Glendening's anti-sprawl Smart Growth program. He said the county Health Department acted accordingly in approving 55 subdivisions near the reservoirs in the past three years.
"While I must respect your decision to rescind authority for the Health Department to sign subdivision plats proposing to utilize on-site wells and septic systems, I do not believe the actions of the Health Department should be characterized as ignoring the state's regulations," Robey wrote in a letter dated Thursday. " Howard County has always embraced both the concept of Smart Growth and the procedures and requirements imposed by the law."
Nishida said in her letter that county policy "falls short of the goals of Smart Growth by employing these tools to potentially increase environmental impacts in the reservoirs."
Nishida was out of the country Friday and could not be reached to comment.
Her agency is planning another step: an audit of the county Health Department's approval of about a dozen subdivisions on private septic systems within 2,500 feet of reservoirs, said James Dieter, the wastewater permit program administrator for MDE.
"I wouldn't characterize it as being unusual to have a performance audit done," Dieter said, adding that the audit could be completed by the end of July. "It's an attempt to ensure that existing state standards and criteria are being applied as it goes through the approvals process."
County Health Officer Diane L. Matuszak is on vacation, but Frank A. Skinner, director of the department's Bureau of Environmental Health, said he cannot recall an audit of the county agency in the 25 years he has worked for the department.
"The authority of the health officer comes from the secretary of MDE, and if we don't perform to their satisfaction and standards, they can withdraw that authority," Skinner said. "We are agents of MDE in this regard."
Matuszak will not be permitted to approve subdivision plans using private septic systems until the audit is completed. Any such plans seeking approval will be reviewed by MDE.
The dispute coincides with an proposed amendment drafted by County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray that would adjust the county code to match state standards.
If approved, the legislation -- which Nishida said the agency "strongly supports" -- could affect Glenwood farmer Charles Sharp's plan to build Big Branch Overlook in rural Dayton.
Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the county Department of Planning and Zoning, said the amendment would prevent Sharp from building 25 of the 95 houses he plans on 237 acres of farmland.
Alec Adams, an attorney representing Sharp, dismissed environmental arguments from the amendment's supporters.
"This is not about the environment," Sharp said. "This is about a no-growth, anti-development effort by neighbors who have nice, fancy houses and don't want anyone else to have houses up there."
A vote on the legislation is scheduled July 6.
Dieter said the state agency became involved after the county approved the Hunterbrooke subdivision of 21 homes in Fulton and after the Dayton Community Association filed a lawsuit against the state and Howard County to block the Big Branch Overlook project.
Peter Esseff, president of the Dayton Community Association, said he blames Rutter for not applying the state regulation to the Sharp plan, which Rutter's office approved.
But Rutter said he followed the county health officer's assessment that the project met the state code.
"If the health officer delegated by MDE or MDE says this is approved, I have no authority to say that I don't approve of state regulations," Rutter said. "I have no problem applying a 2-acre minimum standard today if that's the law."
Pub Date: 6/27/99