ANNAPOLIS – Opponents of a state plan to limit development in Howard County near the Patuxent River hailed its defeat this week, calling it a victory for local zoning autonomy.
But Prince George’s County lawmakers said the pollution that comes with that development will cross county lines and that the state should have a role in regulating it to protect drinking water supplies.
“I have 1.5 million constituents that drink that water, and putting large septic systems along the watershed puts my constituents at very high risk,” said Del. Barbara Frush, D- Prince George’s, who introduced the bill.
She said the problem of pollution crossing county lines will not go away and that a greater state role will be justified in protecting water supplies.
But Del. Don Hughes, R-Wicomico, called the bill “one county trying to micromanage another one.” He said the bill, which died in the House Environmental Matters Committee, would have opened the door to more state oversight of local zoning.
“Howard County has met all federal, state and local rules, and then Prince George’s County wants to come in and influence their zoning,” Hughes said. “It is just not the way the game is played.”
The bill would have limited development near the Triadelphia and T. Howard Duckett reservoirs, which straddle Howard County’s border with Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
Advocates of the bill fear that new homes planned in the area will be served by septic tanks, which they say are more likely than sewer systems to leach into surrounding groundwater.
The bill would have allowed only one house per five acres in the watershed. It would also have required a 300-foot buffer between a septic field and the banks of the reservoirs and 200- foot buffers for streams that feed the reservoirs.
Septic fields use “pipes that fan out over an area that are porous and have breaks in the joints,” said Jon Robinson, chairman of the Prince George’s County Sierra Club.
“Ask people to think of all the things that go down their sinks. They don’t want to be drinking that, I don’t imagine,” he said.
But John Woolums, associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said the bill “would have set a bad precedent.”
In a letter to the Environmental Matters Committee, the association said “the advocates for this bill … are now seeking state legislation in an area where state intrusion is absolutely inappropriate.”
It said the three counties in the watershed — Montgomery, Prince George’s and Howard — are already taking action to protect the reservoirs.
But Duncan Munro, Frush’s legislative assistant, said the bill would have made those voluntary actions mandatory.
“If they participate on a voluntary basis, what’s to say they can’t change their minds?” he said.
The Maryland Department of the Environment already has the authority to address septic system failures, said department spokesman Quentin Banks.
“If a situation arose where, for whatever reason, the counties were not dealing with the issue, the state would step in. The state has authority,” he said.
But Robinson said a state law would be more reliable than a regulatory agency’s discretion.
“A shared septic system has already failed in Howard County,” he said. “Take a drive around the reservoir and look at all the houses that are there now. They’re on septic.”
Frush said she will introduce the bill again next session.
“I consider it to be a very good bill,” she said. “As we look more toward clean water, as we look more toward protecting the environment, it could become something that we want to look at as a statewide bill.
“The opposition indicated that it was a zoning bill,” she said. “I’d rather look at it as protecting the watershed.”