As a newly minted journalist three decades ago, I had more world-changing crusades than you could shake a sword at. One of the targets in my sights was trailer parks, which I considered to be a blight on the landscape and a threat to all that is good and true.
I outlined this theory to a planner named Tim Krawczel, who nodded politely in what I took to be agreement with my assessment. Then, in his quiet way, he asked a simple question: Should only the rich be able to own their own homes?
I had to admit, that one left me kind of stumped.
As the politics of septic tanks takes center stage this new year, two primary sides will be heard from. One is the allies of the Chesapeake Bay who wish ever-tighter restrictions on all forms of waste (which is generally tagged with the cheerier name of “nutrients”), whether human or animal, public sewer plant or private septic system.
On the other are the rural counties that view the new rules as a “War on Rural Maryland,” because they effectively tell landowners what they can and can’t do with their property.
Both sides have valid points. The Chesapeake Bay is still seriously sick, meaning that oysters sold in Maryland restaurants are sometimes harvested in Louisiana. If the bay is to be returned to its days as one of the world’s premier fisheries, half-hearted measures are unlikely to have much effect.
Full measures, however, clearly conflict with the property rights of rural landholders. These septic regulations mean that a land-owner/builder is flat-out prohibited from significant development if that development relies on septic systems instead of a full-blown sewage treatment plant. Practically speaking, that limits growth to locations specifically designated by government planners.
Washington County, of course, has reacted to this new law in a singularly Washington County way. When the state showed up this summer telling local governments that $1.1 billion would be needed to clean up various sources of pollution that soil the bay, it might have paid to understand that they were serious.
But, in Washington County’s defense, $1.1 billion sounded like such an unserious number that, perhaps, they thought this whole clean-bay law would all blow over. When it was clear that it wouldn’t, Commissioner John Barr blamed the Washington County Delegation for inaction, which is a pretty safe response on most any issue.
Del. LeRoy Myers countered that this state law is somehow the county’s responsibility, and blamed Barr for failing to attend a recent commissioners-delegation meeting that apparently could have solved everything. Del. Andrew Serafini said rural lawmakers have indeed taken firm action on the issue; they have come up with a slogan — the aforementioned War on Rural Maryland.
Then, the commissioners got the last word by refusing to pass a locally generated land-use map, which means that state planners will come in and draw up one for us. And, surprise, the state map will be twice as restrictive as a local map would have been.
If any of this silliness had gotten in the way of sound policy, it might be worthy of indignation. But few county residents are likely to feel a lot of sympathy for those whom this section of the law most directly affects: Developers who would park 20 McMansions on 100 acres, thereby chewing up large swaths of rural land for a privileged few.
Still, there is reason to be concerned about our elected officials’ ham-handed response, because one day the state will come for all septic tanks, not just those in large subdivisions. And this gets back to the original point — should only the relatively well-off be allowed to enjoy a home in the country, with the rest or our people herded into thin-walled apartment complexes on the edge of town?
An effective delegation — and yes, to answer Del. Myers, state law is still the responsibility of state lawmakers — should be able to head off such a day. They have plenty of ammunition: Our soils are heavier than those near the bay, and more effective filters of nutrients; our demographic is not Montgomery County’s demographic; and here a rural lifestyle means more than a barbecue grill on a pressure-treated balcony. There is value in this lifestyle, and it is worthy of protection, too.
There is precedent for rural opt-outs. Garrett and Allegany lawmakers were able to exempt their counties from the state reforestation act in the early ’90s. But then, they came to the table armed with more than just a slogan.
Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is email@example.com.