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Governor's call to ban septic sytems upsets local GOP lawmakers

February 04, 2011|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS — Washington County's Republicans were surprised Thursday when Gov. Martin O'Malley called for a ban on septic systems in large new developments.

O'Malley announced his plan during his annual State of the State address to the Maryland General Assembly.

After talking about progress in reducing pollution from sewage treatment plants and stormwater runoff, O'Malley called for a ban on future "major Maryland housing developments" to help protect the Chesapeake Bay.

Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for O'Malley, said later that "major" will mean five or more units. A bill outlining the ban should be filed soon, he said.

Some Republicans blasted the idea.

Sen. Christopher B. Shank said it flies in the face of O'Malley's stated goal of creating and retaining new jobs.

"Tell that to the drywall hanger and house painter whose doors I knocked on in this campaign who are unemployed and looking to find work," Shank said. "Home building is a very big part of our economy in Washington County."

"My biggest concern is what will that do in this time (when) the housing market is horrible? .... You talk about septic systems in developments — does it stop there? I need answers," said Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany.

Adamec said Del. Stephen W. Lafferty, D-Baltimore County, has been a leader on the issue and is working on the bill.

During an interview later, Lafferty said he needs to talk more with the governor's office about how to craft the bill.

"We're still cooking it," he said.

Lafferty was surprised O'Malley mentioned it in his speech.

"I did not anticipate his reference today," he said.

The deadline for introducing House bills through the regular process is the end of next week.

When O'Malley mentioned the proposed ban, Myers, Del. Neil C. Parrott and Del. Andrew A. Serafini, who sit near each other in the House, took notice.

"An engineer and a builder and a financier — we understand that that's going to hurt Marylanders," Parrott, the engineer of the three, said about their collective reaction.

Myers has a construction business, and Serafini is a financial adviser.

"It's going to hurt people who own the land," Parrott said. "It's going to hurt future Marylanders who want to buy the homes — they're going to have to pay more. And it's going to increase the infrastructure unnecessarily with sewer systems throughout Maryland."

Shank said he remembers an uproar over previous plans to require stricter septic systems, but a ban goes beyond that.

"That is a brand new day ....," he said. "You'd basically be taking major swaths of development off the table in Maryland."

Adamec agreed that there's a balance between protecting natural resources and creating jobs, but concluded: "We can do both."

He said the purpose of the septic-system ban "is to build that long-term sustainable future, that will allow you to build an economic base on (it)."

O'Malley said during his speech:

"There is one area of reducing pollution where so far we have totally failed. And, in fact, it's actually gotten much worse. And that is pollution from the proliferation of septic systems throughout our state — systems which, by their very design, are intended to leak sewage ultimately into our bay, into our water tables.

"Now, you and I can turn around this damaging trend by banning the further installation of septic systems in major new Maryland housing developments. This is common sense, this is urgently needed, this is timely and for the health of the bay, we need to do what several rural counties have already done and had the good sense to do."

During a telephone interview, Taylor Oliver, the president of Oliver Homes, a Washington County homebuilder, said: "Obviously, that would be pretty detrimental to everyone here in Washington County. A lot of properties are on individual wells and septics .... It would dramatically alter our way of life."

He said septic systems have become more intricate and effective, and Washington County is a long way from the Chesapeake Bay.

But Lafferty said preservation should be a goal throughout the state, including Western Maryland.

"It all ends up in the bay," he said, "but it might not be as quickly."

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