Gov. Hogan Lifts High-Tech Septic Regs, Saves Residents, Business $$$ in Most of Cecil County; ‘Critical Areas’ Near Bay, Rivers Still Under Rules
Governor Larry Hogan will rescind regulations that required installation of costly high-tech septic systems in most of Cecil County, and instead will only retain the requirements in the “critical areas,” close to the Chesapeake Bay and tidal rivers feeding the Bay. The action, which repeals a mandate created by former Governor Martin O’Malley, will lower costs for most new construction as well as homeowners seeking to build additions to existing homes in the county.
Hogan announced his decision during a weekend meeting of the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO) in Ocean City, a gathering of most of the state’s county and local elected officials as well as lobbyists and members of the General Assembly.
Since a 2009 law enacted by the General Assembly, properties located in the “Critical Area”– within 1,000 feet of the Chesapeake Bay or its “tidal tributaries”—have been required to install nitrogen-reducing “Best Available Technology” (BAT) septic systems for new homes or to replace facilities for existing homes that had failing septic systems. But as of 1/1/13, O’Malley instituted broader regulations that applied to any property considered affecting the Chesapeake Bay “watershed.” In Cecil County, with its many rivers, streams and creeks feeding into the Bay, that revised definition effectively mandated the costly BAT systems county-wide, except for a small area—east of Appleton Road and I-95 that feeds the Delaware River watershed, according to the Cecil County Health Department.
Much of Cecil County lacks county or municipal sewage treatment services and property owners rely on private septic tanks and drainage fields on their land.
Under Hogan’s new proposal—which was still awaiting formal regulations to be issued by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE)—only the “Critical Areas” would remain under the BAT requirements. In Cecil County, that designation includes properties within 1,000 feet of the Bay and also most rivers in the county, including the Bohemia, Sassafras, most of the Elk River and the Susquehanna River south of Port Deposit, as well as the C&D Canal in Chesapeake City.
““Looking ahead, our administration will continue to fight to eliminate those taxes and regulations that stifle the economy in our counties,” according to a statement released by Hogan’s office.
Estimates of the cost of installing BAT systems vary, with MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles saying in Ocean City the costs ran between $10,000 and $20,000 per home. The BAT systems are designed to reduce the flow of nitrogen into waterways and use special tanks and filtration equipment that requires electricity and technical maintenance well beyond the usual pumping of regular septic tanks.
Fred vonStaden, environmental health director for the Cecil County health department, said that most of the BAT systems installed at Cecil County homes have cost $10,800, including tank purchase, installation of the tank and related equipment and five years of maintenance. Most BAT installations have been covered by grants from the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund, which is itself financed by the so-called “flush tax” imposed on property owners in the state who have septic systems of any kind. That tax was created by former Gov. Robert Ehrlich.
The grants program sets priorities for who gets the aid, with top priority given to failing septic systems located in the Critical Area and second place priority on failing septic systems outside the Critical Area. In third place on the priority list is homes in the Critical Area with functioning old-school septic systems that are proposed for upgrade to BAT. New construction in the Critical Area is down the list, at the number 5 priority for grant aid. And in last place is new construction outside the Critical Area—meaning that most new homes built in the county that would be required to get BAT under the O’Malley rules were still at the bottom of the list for grants to pay for it.
In the current year, the county Health Department has an allocation from the state of about $880,000 for BAT grants. In past years, Von Staden said, the department has spent virtually all of the grant money on BAT systems installed in the county.
VonStaden said there was no way to gauge how, or if, the tighter O’Malley rules had affected construction or even homeowners plans to expand their existing houses. He noted that just recently a county resident applied for a BAT grant because he wanted to expand his house from three to six bedrooms and the existing septic system was inadequate for such an increased flow.
But Carolyn Kappra, the government affairs director for the Cecil County Board of Realtors, said the expanded BAT regulations had imposed a significant burden on home buyers and sellers. She cited a recent client in Chesapeake City who had to install a BAT system at a cost of over $12,000 which did not include related fees to dig trenches and improve a drain field. And some property owners battled with health officials over repairs to existing septic systems even though they were not in the affected critical or watershed areas, she said.
Hogan’s repeal of the expanded BAT regulations “will be a huge benefit” to Cecil County home buyers and sellers, Kappra said. But she warned that environmental groups may move in next year’s General Assembly to re-impose the O’Malley regulations.
Cecil County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) welcomed the decision and said it would lift a significant burden from local homeowners and businesses. “I always thought that this was less about the environment and saving the Bay than part of O’Malley’s slow-growth policies,” Hodge said. “O’Malley considered all growth in Cecil County as sprawl,” Hodge said, and raising the costs of construction would limit development.
Hodge said the BAT rules and the recent state requirement to install fire safety sprinklers in newly built single family homes amounted to a “double whammy” to raise costs for new home construction. Hodge had opposed mandatory sprinklers as part of a county regulation and the county had a modified plan for several years, until state fire regulations required all counties to adopt state sprinkler rules.
County Council Vice President Alan McCarthy (R-1) welcomed Hogan’s decision, saying it would mean that the state and local citizens were “no longer throwing money away” on the expanded BAT mandates. Instead, McCarthy said, the state should allocate Bay Restoration funds to expanding sewage treatment facilities that would give “more bang for the buck” to both prevent pollution and expand public services that could assist economic development in counties such as Cecil.
McCarthy, who is the Republican candidate for Cecil County Executive in the November general election, has supported expansion of infrastructure, including sewage treatment services, in the county’s “growth corridor” as a way to promote job opportunities and economic development.
[UPDATE: In a statement emailed to CECIL TIMES, MDE Secretary Grumbles commented, “We are fully committed to clean water progress and meeting Chesapeake Bay goals and requirements. This is a measured step to reduce regulatory burden and build public support for a smarter and more effective septics program across the state. We are customizing the statewide requirement to meet local watershed needs more effectively while still insisting on excellent environmental results. Innovation and collaboration at the local level will lead to more success in protecting and sustaining Maryland’s precious environment. We will work hard to make sure it happens through regulatory reform, education, compliance assistance and enforcement.”
[MDE aides also said the revised regulations have been forwarded to the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Regulatory Review Committee for its review. As part of the plan, MDE will “re-tool” its administrative and enforcement efforts to focus on correcting failing septic systems. In addition, the agency plans to meet with local officials on septic issues as well as ways to help communities connect with public sewage treatment plants.]