By TOM LoBIANCO
The Associated Press
12:00 AM EST, February 16, 2011
A proposal Gov. Martin O’Malley is pushing to require septic systems for new developments would severely limit how state farmers sell their land, giving them one chance to split their land into plots.
“It’s like forcing us to preserve the open space, preserve the rural areas and landscape with no compensation,” said Pat Langenfelder, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau and livestock farmer in Kent County.
Farmers interviewed Tuesday said the limit will crush their ability to make money off the land. But environmental advocates say it is meant to keep developers from skirting their septics proposal.
O’Malley, a Democrat, has made cleaning pollution from septic systems in rural Maryland one of his top priorities this session.
The governor is backing a plan introduced by Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s and Delegate Stephen Lafferty, D-Baltimore County, that would mandate new developments of five homes or more operate on top-grade shared septic systems. New groups of four or fewer homes would still be allowed to operate on less expensive single septic systems, which would still be required to remove more nitrogen than current systems.
But farmers who gathered in Annapolis on Tuesday to lobby lawmakers said the provision inside the septics bill would hamper their ability to make money off their land.
“For one thing, it devalues your property,” said Jack Miltenberger, a vegetable farmer who owns 100 acres of farmland in Allegany County.
Farmers will often peel off portions of their property which are not producing well and seek to have them rezoned either for family members to own or for sale to developers, Miltenberger said.
Miltenberger said he sold a portion of his land in the late ’80s for development and has subdivided his land three times for his three sons to build homes on.
The limit is not aimed at farmers, but at developers looking to skirt the proposed septics rules, said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Without the limit developers would purchase multiple plots from farmers over time and build four homes on each one, effectively building a mega-development run on single septic systems. That’s exactly what the septics bill is trying to stop, she said.
“I think a good question for the farm bureau is: ’Which is the prominent goal? Is it to preserve agricultural land or is it to preserve the right to develop land?”’ Coble said.
But forcing farmers into a one-time decision reduces their flexibility, said Tom Browning, president of the Frederick County Farm Bureau and a former economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency.
“It’s either a little bit of it at once or you want do the whole thing,” Browning said.
On average, 80 percent of farmers’ assets are tied to their land, either by its production potential or ability to be developed, Browning said. Giving farmers one shot at splitting their land makes it harder for them to keep farming.
“We’re still gathering information about the full impact,” said Agriculture Secretary Earl “Buddy” Hance, who is also a former MFB president.
“We knew that the ag(ricultural) community was certainly going to raise some issues and have some concerns. And we’re just trying to put a proposal on the table and see what the response is because it’s hard to anticipate the perspective of individuals,” Hance said.
Read Senate Bill 846: http://mlis.state.md.us/2011rs/billfile/sb0846.htm
Read House Bill 1107: http://mlis.state.md.us/2011rs/billfile/hb1107.htm