Gov. Martin O'Malley stunned environmentalists and builders alike Thursday by calling for a crackdown on housing developments that use septic systems — a bid to curb suburban sprawl and help restore the Chesapeake Bay.
His proposal, part of the annual State of the State address, set the stage for a fierce debate in Annapolis. Developers warned that it could stifle growth and cost jobs in a real estate industry still struggling to climb from the recession.
Speaking to lawmakers, O'Malley said that pollution from homes being built with septic systems is undercutting Maryland's efforts to clean up the bay.
While the state has moved to curb pollution from farms and sewage treatment plants, the governor said, "there is one area of reducing pollution where so far we have totally failed, and in fact it has gotten much worse ... and that is pollution from the proliferation of new septic systems — systems which by their very design are intended to leak sewage into our bay and water tables."
He urged lawmakers to enact a statewide ban on "major" housing developments that use septic systems, calling it "common sense" and "urgently needed." Administration officials said later that developments with as few as six homes would be affected by the proposed ban.
Environmentalists applauded O'Malley's stand, which echoes a proposal made last year by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Kim Coble, Maryland director of the Annapolis-based group, called the governor's move "a bold step."
"All the progress we hope to make in reducing pollution from other sources — wastewater treatment plants, urban and suburban streets, coal plants, cars, farms — all could be undone if we continue to allow sprawl growth using septic systems in our rural areas," she said in a statement.
But builders and some rural legislators warned that such a ban could stifle growth outside metropolitan areas and lead to layoffs among home builders, septic contractors and other real estate businesses.
"This is a direct attack on the private property rights of rural landowners in Maryland," said Del. Michael Smigiel, a Republican representing Cecil County. "This will destroy the ability of working-class Marylanders to have affordable housing."
While the majority of Marylanders live in homes served by public sewers, there are about 430,000 septic systems statewide, and state planners project that another 145,000 could be built in the next 20 years. Conventional septic systems capture solid waste in a tank and neutralize disease-causing bacteria, but still allow nitrogen to seep through a drain field into groundwater and nearby streams.
Each household with a septic system releases about 10 times as much water-fouling nitrogen into nearby streams and the bay as does a home connected to a wastewater treatment plant, state environmental officials say. And about 7 percent of all the nitrogen getting into the bay from Maryland comes from septic systems, officials say.
Nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage, farm and lawn fertilizer, and other sources feed massive algae blooms in the bay each year, creating a vast "dead zone" where fish and shellfish cannot breathe.
"Of all the sources of pollution on the bay, this is the one where the least has been done," said Richard E. Hall, state planning secretary. "It's been talked about for years, but little has been done about it."
Two years ago, lawmakers did vote to require less polluting, but more costly, septic systems for all new homes built close to the bay, or when existing homes there had to replace aging systems.
The state provides grants to eligible homeowners to install the enhanced septic systems, which cost about $13,000 each, but by last July had funded only about 2,200, half of them close to the bay or its tributaries. Officials estimate that there are about 50,000 homes with septic systems near the water.
Septic limitations, however, have been hotly debated in Annapolis before, and the law passed two years ago did so by only a single vote in the Senate. Environmentally inclined lawmakers planned to introduce legislation this year requiring less-polluting septic systems statewide, but a similar bill has failed to pass before.
The O'Malley administration had signaled last fall that it would move to require upgrades for existing septic systems near the bay, so they would release only half as much nitrogen. But O'Malley's call for a ban caught people off guard, aides say, because the governor did not consult with anyone outside state government before proposing it.
"There was an audible, palpable gasp in the chamber when he said it," said Del. Anthony O'Donnell, the House Republican leader. O'Donnell, who represents St. Mary's County, called the governor's proposal "scary" and predicted that it could lead to "an effective building moratorium" in rural counties.