Septic grant rules altered

Too many strings may have deterred residents

The Capital, 2009.02.25

County officials have reversed a controversial policy blamed for strangling efforts to reduce the pollution that septic systems pour into the Chesapeake Bay.

While the county had millions in grant dollars to pay waterfront homeowners to install technology that combats the problem, relatively few residents signed up for the funding.

Some politicians blamed the program's lukewarm success on a policy that added too many strings to the grant money - including forbidding homeowners from ever putting an addition on their homes. Previously, the county could have used the grant agreement to deny additions as minor as building a new deck.

"I can't tell you how big an obstacle it (the grant agreement) was," said County Councilman Ron Dillon, R-Pasadena. "You were almost crazy if you signed it."

County Executive John R. Leopold announced a reversal to that provision Monday, saying the policy's original intent to control growth needed to be balanced with property rights.

"The revised grant agreement strikes a fair balance between protecting our waterways by upgrading septic systems and at the same time allowing homeowners to build additions to their homes in accordance with the law," Leopold said.

The old policy perplexed Pasadena resident Debi Grim, who thought her failing septic system near the waterfront was a perfect candidate for grant money when she applied for it last year.

She said she owns a "small, chopped-up, old beach cottage" with a front door that opens into the kitchen. She wanted to add a small entry way and upgrade her septic system with pollution-reducing technology at the same time. But the county turned her down, partly because of the planned addition.

"My concern was: Why am I being denied?" Grim said. "I am an environmentalist. I live on the water. I've got a failing system, and whether I'm putting on an addition is neither here nor there. If there's money out there to help, I want some of it."

The pollution-reducing technology can cost as much as $15,000 more than a conventional system. The newer, more expensive systems cut in half the amount of nitrogen flowing into waterways, dramatically reducing one of the most notorious pollutants to the bay.

Excess nitrogen fuels algae blooms that block sunlight to underwater plants, feeding a cycle that ultimately sucks oxygen out of the water and chokes marine life.

There are about 40,000 septic systems in the county, each emitting nitrogen into waterways. The county received $2.64 million from the Bay Restoration Fund two years ago to distribute grants that pay for the cost of replacing about 130 conventional systems with new ones that have state-of-the-art pollution controls. So far, only about 80 have been installed.

While there is no hard data to suggest the program's lackluster performance had anything to do with the no-addition rule, some politicians believe it was clearly a deterrent.

"This provision was actually counterproductive and worked against improving the environment and made people think twice about improving their septic systems," said County Councilman Josh Cohen, D-Annapolis. "This provision was clearly a barrier to improving our environment, and I'm pleased that the administration is taking it out."

The original intent of the policy was to limit growth in the environmentally sensitive areas of the Chesapeake Bay because often upgraded septic systems can make it easier for residents to expand their homes. However, there are a cascade of other regulations already in place to limit the size of the expansions and protect the environment.

Erik Michelsen, executive director of the South River Federation environmental group, isn't convinced the no-addition policy was the main culprit behind the program's sluggish pace.

"My feeling is that (it) wasn't the primary obstacle," Michelsen said. "I think a lot of people weren't aware that conventional septic systems were contributing to pollution. … I think if people realized the impact that these (new) systems were having, they'd taking advantage of the money."

(Revised May 2009)