The presidents of the three Southern Maryland farm bureaus blasted a new state law limiting growth on septic systems during a meeting with the region’s lawmakers Friday.
Under the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act, known as the “septic bill” and passed last year by the Maryland General Assembly, counties are required to draw and submit to the state maps drawn into four tiers identifying where new construction can be built on septic systems or public sewer.
The bill designates land already served by public sewer systems as Tier I, and land that is intended to be served by sewer in the future as Tier II. Septic systems will only be allowed in subdivisions in Tier III areas, which include nonagricultural, nonforested areas where there are no plans to build public sewer. Only limited growth on septics will be allowed in Tier IV zones, which are reserved for farming and forest preservation.
Farmers have opposed the bill, claiming it strips their land of its value by reducing the number of homes that a potential developer can build on it.
“When the state comes in and tells you what you can do with your property, that’s a stealing of property rights. That’s robbery,” Charles County Farm Bureau President David Hancock Jr. said. “We feel the bill was developed by urban state officials to force control over rural parts of the state, and that’s not fair. That’s why we have our rural legislators, to fight for us.”
Calvert County Farm Bureau President Thomas D. Briscoe said farmers have led the way on voluntary land preservation since the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Program started in 1977 and that the bill “unfairly targets our landowners and is really the latest of piece of legislation that devalues our property once more.”
Briscoe said the septic bill “is unnecessary and should be abolished,” or that farmers should be compensated for the lost value of their land. Hancock said compensation would make the bill “a little bit easier of a pill to swallow.”
St. Mary’s County Farm Bureau President James K. Raley said the idea behind the septic bill — promoting smart growth and land preservation — “is not inconsistent with what’s been the philosophy of the Maryland Farm Bureau … but with this particular instance, it’s the details and the implementation of those details that require further consideration and possibly some litigation to make this law something that the people of Maryland can live with and work with and still make a living as a farmer.”
Raley said a farmer’s land equity is one of the main things banks look at when considering whether to hand out the loans needed to run a farm as a successful business.
“People have said that it’s not stealing property rights from you. You have a large farm [and] you can only put seven houses on it, you cannot tell me that that’s not stealing property rights,” Hancock said. “The other thing we catch is a lot of people seem to think that all we want to do is develop our farms, and that’s not true. I grew up on a farm, and that’s the way I want it to be.”
The delegation also got an update on the development of each county’s tier maps from the presidents of their respective county commissioner boards.
Charles County commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) recapped the county’s ongoing tier map process, stating that the commissioners are waiting on the county’s planning commission to take further action on its new comprehensive plan.
In Calvert County, where there is little public sewer outside of its seven town centers, officials have deferred action on its tier maps until the end of the legislative session to see if lawmakers make any changes to the bill.
Under a draft plan, Tiers I and II would include only 5 percent of Calvert, while Tiers III and IV would make up 45 and 47 percent, respectively. Under the plan, only one home would be allowed for every 10.6 acres in Tier IV. There are 90 landowners in Tier IV whose land would lose the potential for a combined 1,012 lots, according to a status report prepared for the delegation.
As a result, the bill will further disincentivize Calvert’s transferable development rights program, which already took a hit during the recession due to declining property values, said Chuck Johnston, director of the Calvert County Department of Community Planning and Building.
“Calvert County has a 40-year history of land preservation through its groundbreaking [TDR] program,” the county wrote in the status report. “Property owners in Calvert have entered into this program in good faith and rely on the program remaining strong and viable. Limits on development in Tier IV have undercut this viability.”
The report includes several recommended changes to the bill, including allowing major subdivisions — in Calvert, eight or more lots — on septic in Tier II but requiring that homeowners agree to hook up to public sewer once taps become available.
St. Mary’s County commissioners’ President Jack Russell (D) said the county has “basically finished” its tier maps and that the Maryland Department of Planning has said the maps closely adhere to the bill’s guidelines.
Russell said the “vast majority” of parcels in the county’s rural preservation districts would be unaffected by the bill because they’re either permanently protected already or too small to be subdivided any further.
“Tier mapping alters but does not undermine the effectiveness of our county TDR program,” Russell said.
The county estimates that the bill will downzone 1,250 rural parcels, eliminating a potential 11,000 lots, but will retain the potential for 7,500 lots. In total, the bill places the county’s buildout at 32,240 lots, of which 20,790 are existing.
“I have not heard of any groundswell of complaints,” said Phillip Shire, director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Land Use and Growth Management. “I don’t feel threatened by the program.”
Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert, St. Mary’s) took issue with Shire’s comments.
“I represent St. Mary’s County, and I’ve heard a whole bunch of complaints,” he said.
Russell said the commissioners have had “many objections” to the bill, but “instead of saying ‘no’ all the time … we’ve tried to work through this.”
O’Donnell expressed skepticism that Russell’s feelings on the bill match those of the county’s four Republican commissioners.
“What I’m trying to do is ascertain the real, true level of anxiety in St. Mary’s County with regard to this policy, and I think it’s much higher than is being represented right here,” he said.
Del. Mark N. Fisher (R-Calvert) remarked that the delegation’s meeting room was full “because there was indeed a taking of [property] rights.” He said the fiscal note for failed legislation that would have repealed the septic bill admits as much, by stating that repeal would result in a net gain in property tax revenue by lifting restrictions on new development.
“In other words, an absolute definition by the state of Maryland that it took value away from the property owners of Southern Maryland and throughout the state. That’s why we’re here,” Fisher said. “You either believe in the private property rights, or you do not.”
The fiscal note indicates that the septic bill might decrease the value of agricultural land in Tiers III and IV while increasing the value of properties in Tiers I and II.
Del. John F. Wood Jr. (D-St. Mary’s, Charles) agreed with Fisher regarding the septic bill’s affect on property values throughout the state.
“You’ve taken money out of people’s pockets, and that’s what we work for. We work to have something to pass along to our kids and families,” Wood said. “Everybody doesn’t want to live in Lexington Park or Leonardtown or Waldorf or wherever. There are people who want to live in the rural areas, and we’re forcing people to live in these areas where they don’t want to live, and that is wrong.”
As the only full-time farmer in the state legislature, Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) said farmers’ “anguish” over the septic bill “has to do with [land] value.”
“They were playing by the rules,” he said. “The rules were there, they made investments, and now the rules change.”
But Middleton believes the concerns over land can be addressed without repealing the bill “and take a lot of sting out of the program.” He suggested that the commissioners enact a local ordinance placing a floor value on the county’s TDRs to keep them from becoming “almost worthless.”
“I think with the right tuning to it that [the septic bill] can be something that I think in the end is going to be good for the state,” Middleton said.
Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) said he understands why people were upset about declining property values but added that many Charles County citizens also are upset with continuous home construction when there are so many existing houses in foreclosure, which also hurts property values.
“This plan is going to affect each and every person, even if you don’t own a home,” Wilson said. “Not just the value of the homes but also the schools, the roads, the use of services, as well as the farmers.”
Rural Maryland Coalition President and Allegany County commissioners’ President Michael McKay (R) and Frederick County commissioners’ President Blaine Young (R) also spoke to the delegation in opposition to the septic bill.
O’Donnell presented an aerial image of a muddied Chesapeake Bay taken in September after Tropical Storm Lee, during which the Conowingo Dam overflowed and an estimated four million tons of sediment washed into the Susquehanna River, the bay’s largest tributary, while overflows at various wastewater treatment plants sent millions of gallons of raw sewage into the bay.
O’Donnell said the state would be better served to fix such facilities to prevent future spills rather than “going after farmers.”
Fisher asked Maryland Secretary of Planning Richard Hall, who attended the meeting, whether he still felt the septic bill would not result in a loss of land value, as he had said last year in a meeting with the delegation.
“I do, in the aggregate sense,” Hall said, adding that recent sales data shows the average price of farmland remaining steady or even increasing. “I think in some cases perhaps, in others not.”