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New pollution rules would restrict rural development in Washington Co.

August 28, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY — The Washington County Board of Commissioners is trying to figure out how and if the county should participate in a new state law on septic systems.

The Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012 was passed to try to keep pollution from the Chesapeake Bay through tighter land controls.

The centerpiece is a four-tier system with different restrictions on sewer and septic use depending on the land.

Commissioners criticized the law on Tuesday, but admitted they have little choice — “other than putting diapers on cows,” County Administrator Gregory B. Murray joked.

Stephen T. Goodrich, the county’s planing and zoning director, said counties have to decide whether to “participate” in the state law, for lack of a better word.

If they don’t, the consequences might be worse; development would be restricted more, he said.

The number of lots the county could approve in rural areas under the four-tier system will drop 20 to 25 percent, Goodrich told the commissioners.

But if the county balks and doesn’t adopt the new structure, the number of possible lots could drop 40 to 45 percent, he said.

In a voice-mail message, Andrew Ratner, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Planning, said that if a jurisdiction doesn’t adopt the tier structure by Dec. 31, it cannot have any major subdivisions outside of areas that currently have sewer systems.

The state law defines a minor subdivision as one that’s no more than seven lots — two more than the current Washington County cutoff of five.

The Department of Planning, which may comment on jurisdictions’ tiers, is due to issue a report to the Maryland General Assembly on tier mapping by Feb. 1, Ratner said.

According to the law, the structure is:
• Tier 1 — no residential subdivisions on septic systems
• Tier 2 — no residential subdivisions of more than seven lots on septic systems
• Tier 3 — residential subdivisions of more than seven lots require a public hearing, then planning commission approval
• Tier 4 — residential subdivisions of more than seven lots not permitted, unless development can meet a density threshold.

The Washington County commissioners expressed mixed feelings about the change on Tuesday.

Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham said the requirement for the “best available technology” on septic systems is a burden on homeowners.

Terry L. Baker, the commissioners’ president, said the new law will “bankrupt” many people in rural areas.

He recommended that the commissioners “table it until we have to participate.” Baker suggested waiting 30 days and getting comments from landowners.

Commissioners William B. McKinley and Jeffrey A. Cline agreed.

But Goodrich said a delay could create other problems, since the county needs to notify developers as soon as possible if the county is going to make changes.

The law allows a preliminary subdivision plat that’s submitted by Oct. 1 to be exempt.

The commissioners ultimately agreed that Goodrich can prepare an ordinance for them to approve.

“It’s not palatable, regardless,” Murray said.

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