County OKs shared septic for subdivisions

Developments of 5 lots or fewer can install systems

Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2009

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Two months after passing a law that would allow the use of shared septic systems in areas outside of the Charles County development district, the county commissioners voted to loosen restrictions in the law.

In a 4-1 decision Jan. 28, with Commissioner Gary V. Hodge (D) in dissent, the commissioners voted to allow shared septic systems to be used for the creation of minor subdivisions of five lots or fewer in rural areas.

Hodge called the latest revision "totally inconsistent with the county's growth policies."

The November version of the law, which passed 3-2 with the support of Hodge, restricted use of the systems to failing septic systems, affordable housing and village centers.

At the time of the November vote, the commissioners had agreed to review the law again this year. They let the county's legal department and shared septic work group try to find a way to allow shared septic minor subdivisions for farming families wanting to give land to their children without setting off a rural housing boom.

"It was very clear that there would be a revision," said commissioners' Vice President Edith J. Patterson (D), who opposed the original law, because it excluded minor subdivisions.

However, the shared septic workgroup, which includes Mike Sullivan, a developer and sponsor of the original bill, didn't return with any solutions to the minor subdivision quandary. Instead, they suggested that there was simply no reason to restrict minor subdivisions at all.

"The work group did not feel that providing shared septic for a minor subdivision would be inappropriate," said Roy Hancock, assistant county administrator and head of the workgroup. "We could not determine a situation where it would be inappropriate."

Workgroup members explained that state restrictions would prevent landowners from using the shared septic systems to build on lots that would not have passed a percolation test otherwise. However, they explained that allowing shared septic systems for minor subdivisions would also allow those subdivisions to be clustered more tightly, preserving more open space.

Hodge was not sold on the idea, and he dismissed the workgroup's findings that St. Mary's County only receives one request a year for shared septic systems.

"It's total speculation as to whether that would be our experience here in Charles County," Hodge said.

The workgroup also recommended that the commissioner remove a phrase that requires shared septic systems to be "deemed appropriate" by the commissioners.

"I would find it extraordinary for the commissioners to not reserve the authority to approve [shared septic systems]," Hodge said. He urged his fellow commissioners to instead make the language more explicit, requiring all shared systems to be "subject to the approval of" the commissioners.

After several minutes of parliamentary confusion, the commissioners voted to pass an amended bill allowing shared systems on minor subdivisions, but strengthened the approval authority.

Both the November bill and the new bill are still subject to the approval of the Maryland Department of the Environment, which has 90 days to review the law from the date they receive it.