Deadline looms for Washington Co. to comply with septic, development rule

December 04, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ |

HAGERSTOWN — With an end-of-the-year deadline looming, Washington County officials still are deciding how to comply with new state limits on septic systems and development.

The county commissioners held a public hearing on Tuesday on how a four-tier structure might be applied locally.

Under state 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 are not permitted, unless development can meet a density threshold.

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

Washington County has come up with a proposed map for applying the required tiers to local land.

But the Maryland Department of Planning has indicated that it doesn’t support the county’s proposal and instead presented an alternate map. If the county adopted its own proposed map, the state’s objection could trigger another public hearing.

Jill L. Baker, the county’s chief planner, said the county has an estimated 32,000 to 35,000 lots that could be developed under existing zoning.

If the county doesn’t comply with the state law on septic tiers, land in its rural areas automatically will become Tier 4, which would cut potential development by about 47 percent, she said.

If the county adopts the alternate map put forward by the state, that would cut potential development by 45 percent.

Under the map proposed by the county, potential development would be cut by 24 percent, Baker said.

The county has proposed designating more of its land as Tier 3 than the state wants.

The county also is considering raising the ceiling for minor subdivisions to seven from five, where it stands now, an increase allowed in the state law.

Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham wondered if the county, as an aggrieved party, could sue the state.

Having the state “strong-arm” local governments into compliance is “not democracy,” she said.

Maryland’s counties have until Dec. 31 to comply with the state law by assigning local land to the four tiers.

The state Department of Planning is due to issue a report on tier mapping to the Maryland General Assembly by Feb. 1.

Fred Frederick of Frederick, Seibert & Associates, an engineering firm, spoke during Tuesday’s public hearing on behalf of land owners Ad Fulton and Janet Stiles Fulton.

Frederick asked the county to move three properties they own from Tier 4 to Tier 3 on the proposed map. Reducing the development possibilities on the land lowers its value, cutting into owners’ ability to use it as collateral to borrow money, he said.

Farmer Gerald Ditto said the new tier system could cut his property’s worth by about 57 percent, based on development potential.

He criticized county officials for failing to take other steps that could have helped people who make a living through agriculture.

Ditto said his ancestors came to Washington County in 1790, starting a family tradition of farming. “I’m sorry they didn’t go farther west,” he said.

Baker said county staff will provide more information about the potential changes, probably next week, so the commissioners can decide on a course.

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