ANNAPOLIS—A controversial proposed ban on new large-development septic systems in Maryland will be replaced by a broad study of environmental-protection issues, a House committee chairwoman said Wednesday.
The plan was in a bill filed by Del. Stephen W. Lafferty, D-Baltimore County, and championed by Gov. Martin O'Malley. It was seen as a way to bolster Maryland's efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay by limiting pollution that ends up there.
However, Republicans from Washington County argued that it could devastate homebuilding and other associated trades.
The governor surprised lawmakers from rural areas by calling for an unspecified ban septic systems in "major new Maryland housing developments" in his State of the State speech a month ago.
"Major" was defined in a followup bill as having at least five units.
On Wednesday, Del. Maggie McIntosh, the Environmental Matters Committee chairwoman, said Lafferty's bill, scheduled to be heard March 11, will be reshaped in committee.
"We've got 40-some days left. This is a very, very heated debate about the use of septic systems and growth, generally, in Maryland," she said.
She said O'Malley agrees with her suggestion of a task force representing wide-ranging constituencies to look comprehensively at septic systems, wastewater and stormwater.
Its report would be due Dec. 1, 2011, according to a letter she sent O'Malley.
The change in course relieved some lawmakers who objected to the ban.
"The bigger fix for the problems of the bay are the major wastewater treatment plants," said Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington.
Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Caroline/Cecil/Kent/Queen Anne's, the Senate's minority whip, issued a statement saying the state, particularly rural areas, "can breathe a sigh of relief."
"For the 1.6 million Marylanders who live in rural Maryland, passage of the ban would end job growth and any hope that the children born and raised in rural Maryland would be able to find employment and raise their families in rural settings," Pipkin said in the release.
He wrote that septic systems create only 4 to 8 percent of the nitrogen in the bay, so the ban was "like trying to kill a gnat with a bazooka."
Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said at a Western Maryland delegation meeting Wednesday that opponents had planned a lively protest outside the State House next week, complete with tractors and outhouses.
McIntosh wrote to O'Malley on Monday to express concerns she and other lawmakers had. She said "an outright ban could and would have a disproportionate impact on several counties in Maryland."
She recommended additional measures to help farms and rural counties.
A few days earlier, seven House Democrats wrote to McIntosh with concerns about the septic-ban bill.
O'Malley responded to McIntosh in a letter Tuesday that said he and his administration want "to move forward ... on this critical issue."
The letter said development with septic systems "pollutes 10 times more per household and uses 8 times more land per household than homes in smart growth areas."
The letter doesn't mention a task force, but endorses McIntosh's "ideas for pulling together stakeholders."
Asked in an e-mail if O'Malley would support a task force instead of a ban, spokesman Shaun Adamec wrote: "The Governor is eager to work with Delegate McIntosh and all other stakeholders to move forward on a bill that moves towards ending the proliferation of polluting septic systems that damage our Bay. What that bill looks like remains to be seen. The Governor still feels strongly that now is the time to take action."
Lafferty said Wednesday that his bill wasn't an attack on rural Maryland.
He said there are complicated issues surrounding pollution that need to be discussed.
"We can't use our current status as the default," he said.