Wicomico Tier Map hearing provides guidance for County Council

On Wednesday night over 200 people jammed a converted gymnasium at the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center to hear what interested observers had to say about the prospect of a Tier Map to place the county in compliance with last year’s Senate Bill 236, better known as the “Septic Bill.” Over two dozen members of the public, including this reporter, stood up to give testimony on the concept of adopting a map as prescribed by the state in the adopted law. For Wicomico County and other jurisdictions without an approved map, the clock is ticking: they’ve passed a December 31, 2012 deadline to adopt an acceptable map and cannot legally allow a new “major subdivision” of more than seven lots.

At the hearing Wicomico County Council president Matt Holloway made it clear that no decisions would be made at the meeting. Instead, it was an opportunity to solicit public comment on the zoning issue. “(We will) hear input and discuss the septic bill,” said Holloway.

Wicomico County’s planning director Jack Lenox gave a brief overview of the proposal, noting that while Senate Bill 236 was not a zoning or subdivision bill, it “has the same effect.” Two-thirds of the county was already zoned as agricultural-rural, he added.

(continued at the Watchdog Wire…)

As bonus monoblogue content, here is my testimony as prepared for delivery last night:

Ladies and gentlemen of Wicomico County Council,

My name is Michael Swartz and I live on Mount Hermon Road in Salisbury.

The Septic Bill passed last year has been of keen interest to me, not because I’m a farmer, but because when it comes to government I tend to believe the closer the government is to the people, the better it performs.

While I noticed the Septic Bill passed last spring, it really didn’t get onto my radar screen until I realized over the following months what the impact would be on the local agricultural industry as well as how our county operates its own affairs. To me, it was another strike by Annapolis in what’s been called the “War on Rural Maryland”, a case of once again governing in the pursuit of centralized power rather than the benefit of the people.

So I was pleased to see that Delegate McDermott introduced a Septic Bill repeal bill this year in the General Assembly. To be quite honest, I held little illusion it would pass because power gained by the bureaucrats and majority party in Annapolis is rarely given up easily. Still, I took the time to write testimony for House Bill 106, which I will quote from.

In my testimony I wrote the following paragraphs:

There is little doubt that Chesapeake Bay defines Maryland as a state, and, while there are differences in opinion as to the best course to take in preserving the quality of the estuary for future generations, the goal for all is a cleaner Bay. These concerns have already been addressed on many fronts, with assistance from both the state and federal governments.

That assistance is not at question here, because the law which this bill aims to repeal is not a bill to directly clean up Chesapeake Bay. Rather, HB106 corrects an ill-considered measure which, if not changed, will permanently and adversely affect the farmers who create much of the wealth in rural areas of the state like the local government as elected by the people of Wicomico County.

When the county places land in a tier where development is permanently limited by the newly-created law, I believe the landowner is harmed as the potential value of his property is decreased via the lack of development options. Though some landowners have already given up development rights, which was their decision, I do not believe this can be a one-size-fits-all approach as the state is dictating. Instead, I believe that farmers are the best stewards of their land and many have already taken common-sense measures to protect both their investment and the health of the Bay, with planting cover crops being one prime example.

Because they realized our job is to allow farmers and the agricultural industry to engage in the practices they find best, at the end of last year our County Council considered a provision which would allow an agricultural landowner to voluntarily opt into a Tier IV designation. But Maryland Department of Planning and Zoning Secretary Richard Hall made it plain that, “The law pretty much makes clear that agricultural zones are to be in Tier IV, and so to opt in or opt out is not what’s in the legislation.”

What an attitude exhibited by Secretary Hall! Annapolis knows best, and we should just sit down and shut up. That’s not going to happen.

Unfortunately, my testimony and that of others did little good as House Bill 106 was killed in committee. However, I would like to publicly thank Delegate McDermott for sponsoring the bill and Delegate Charles Otto for voting for it in the House Environmental Matters Committee. It should be noted, though, that Delegate Rudy Cane – who ironically enough chairs the Agriculture, Agriculture Preservation, and Open Space Subcommittee within the Environmental Matters Committee, voted to retain a bill which won’t do a thing to preserve agriculture – although it may increase the amount of “open space” as farms go bankrupt and become overgrown.

To me, given the small percentage of the Bay’s nitrogen problem traceable to rural septic systems, the bill passed last year is akin to using a sledgehammer to kill an ant. Out here, we know better than that.

So, as members of the Wicomico County Council, the ball is now in your court. In my opinion, if we have to have a tier map, let it place the absolute minimum amount of land off-limits to future development. To those of you here from the state or from environmental organizations recommending a more restrictive map, such as what happened in Cecil County last night after their original tier map was rejected, let me just say you may as well prepare for a fight.

I’d like to commend this Council for placing the needs of the people first and holding this hearing. Now let’s do the right thing and adopt true Smart Growth, allowing prudent development where land can be improved to its highest and best use.

Here’s the PAC-14 video.

I come on at about the 20 minute mark.