O'Malley septic curb hits roadblock

House leader calls for study, governor vows to press case

March 02, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

Prospects for Gov. Martin O'Malley's bid to restrict rural and suburban development on septic systems apppear dim this year with a key House leader expressing reservations, but the governor's press secretary maintains he's not giving up on trying to get his legislation passed this year.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, head of the House Environmental Matters Committee, wrote O'Malley earlier this week saying that while she agreed with him on the need for tighter curbs on sprawl and on "the proliferation of septic systems," she was worried the measure would disproportionately affect some counties where most housing is built with on-site sewage treatment.

McIntosh, a Baltimore city Democrat, said she believed the septic limits proposed in the bill needed to be paired with "initiatives that assist farms and rural counties," two of the constituencies that have complained loudly that the legislation would impoverish them and stifle virtually all growth. McIntosh urged O'Malley to name a task force including those groups, developers and other critics and hash out how septic curbs fit into larger efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay and preserve farmland from sprawling development.

O'Malley answered with a letter of his own defending his proposal, while acknowledging, "We need to collectively look at what works in Maryland to address these issues."

But Shaun Adamec, the governor's press secretary, said O'Malley stands by the bill he had introduced and intends to testify in support of it at the hearing scheduled March 11 before McIntosh's committee. And while McIntosh's desire to study the issue may prevent it from getting out of her committee, Adamec said the governor has not given up on trying to win her and critics over to the need to do something about septics this year — even if it's a more limited measure.

"Something clearly is better than nothing, but it's still very much the governor's intention to outline specifically why it's so important to take drastic action now," the governor's spokesman said.

(An earlier version of this story incorrectly interpreted O'Malley's letter and earlier remarks by his press secretary to say the governor had yielded to McIntosh's call for study and would not push for passage of the bill this year.)

The bill would require any development of five or more homes to be built on public sewer or on a shared waste treatment system. Smaller projects and individual homes could still be built on septic, but would have to use more costly advanced systems that remove more of the nitrogen that is fouling the bay's water.

Though surprised when the governor unveiled the proposed septic curb in his State of the State speech on Feb. 3, environmentalists quickly rallied to support it. A household on a conventional septic system releases up to 10 times as much nitrogen into the bay and its tributaries as does a household hooked up to a sewage treatment plant, officials say, and the amount of growth projected to occur statewide on septic systems in the next 25 years could offset other pollution reductions made to restore the bay.

But the governor's proposal has drawn the ire of builders, farmers and rural and suburban officials, who complain that it would stifle growth and deprive farmers of the ability to sell land for development. Half or more of the homes built in many of the state's rural counties are on septic systems.

McIntosh's call for more study likely blocks action in Annapolis this year — any bill dealing with the environment must come through her committee. She could not be reached for comment .

This is not the first septic crackdown to falter. A bid in 1999 by Gov. Parris N. Glendening to require less polluting but more costly septic systems on all new homes died in the same committee, and a decade passed before it resurfaced, with lawmakers narrowly agreeing to require them on homes close to the bay.

"The governor certainly knew that this issue — as it has in the past — would generate some debate," Adamec said.

Katie Maloney, a lobbyist for the Maryland State Builders Association, which opposed the governor's move, said the apparent move to study the issue over the rest of the year was "good news for us, but we've got our work cut out for us."

Environmental activists went along with McIntosh's call for a task force encompassing real estate interest, farmers, local officials and legislators, to try to resolve their concerns and make recommendations before next year's General Assembly session.

"We don't see this as a death knell for a good idea," said Jenn Aiosa, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "We see it as a way to strengthen the concept."

But some could not conceal their disappointment.

"This just delays an important solution for a serious problem one more year, and that concerns us very much," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a growth management advocacy group.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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