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April 17, 2012

Septic Bill Devalues Frederick’s Agricultural Land

Earl 'Rocky' Mackintosh

Last week Maryland Senate Bill 236 passed and with Gov. Martin O'Malley's signature it will soon become law. Otherwise known as the Septic Ban Boondoggle the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012, it is part of Plan Maryland, which MacRo Report has covered before.


This latest nifty piece of "anti-sprawl" legislation will supposedly cut way down on nitrogen pollution that seeps into the Chesapeake Bay from rural septic systems. This seems like a whole lot of trouble for nothing when you consider that according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, only 4-6% of nitrogen pollution is caused by Maryland septic system leaks. Such statistical information coming from this group is more than likely a real stretch in and of itself.


This so called six percent is a whole lot less than say the millions of gallons of raw sewage that routinely spill into our streams, rivers, and bay when municipal water treatment plants fail. Which they do far more often than the O’Malley administration cares to admit.


Remember when “enough raw sewage to fill 388 large gasoline tanker trucks” flowed into Carroll Creek just this past December?


According to State Sen. David Brinkley in his newsletter of April 13: This "bill requires counties to divide their jurisdictions into 'tiers' of development and incorporate them into their comprehensive plans before any major subdivisions served by septic systems can be approved."


To learn more, do a Google search to find the approved "Maryland Senate Bill 236." The definitions for the four tiers start on page 46, and the (ahem) development “guidelines” for each tier can be found starting on page 13.


Senator Brinkley served on the "Septic Task Force" that came about due to Mr. O'Malley's failure to get a tougher septic ban approved during the 2011 legislative session. The group met 10 times last year and produced a 13-page report. Despite those efforts, Senator Brinkley states that "the Governor ignored the recommendations of the task force and introduced a bill that was far more egregious than what eventually passed."


This very objectionable part of the original draft was amended to take land planning veto powers out of the hands of the state and put them back into the hands of county governments. However, the state has made it clear that counties who “don’t play by the rules” could pay the price in terms of losses in discretionary state funding and programs.


In what Senator Brinkley calls a "one size fits all approach" to the perceived problem, the amended bill prohibits development on most, if not all, lands that have been zoned as agricultural; lands designated resource protection, preservation, or conservation, and “areas dominated by agricultural lands, forest lands, or other natural areas.”


It is the part about prohibiting future development on agriculturally zoned land that worries the farming community. Yes, a majority of those affected object to SB 236!


Frederick County has a proud and strong heritage of agriculture and farming. It might seem counter-intuitive to state that prohibiting development on land that has been zoned agricultural will save our farmers, but it’s the truth.


Having spent a significant part of my youth growing up and working on the family farm and knowing the local agricultural community as well as I do, farming can be (and please pardon the pun) a feast and famine way of life.


There are good years, with cooperation from Mother Nature, high commodity values and healthy livestock. And then there are the bad years when extreme weather, insect infestation, rising fuel costs and veterinary bills devastate margins and then some.


Luck is not often a lady. Any farmer can tell you that.


Those who make a living working the land in Central and Western Maryland typically do not sit on a pile of excess cash. Land is the asset that enables farmers to finance replacement equipment, to improve farming practices, and to expand operations. In any business, if you aren’t moving forward, you’re falling behind.


In many cases, land values and development rights are the crutch that gets a farmer through the lean years. Without that leverage, it isn’t possible to borrow money when it doesn’t rain more than half an inch during the entire growing season.


The "one size fits all" mentality that the O'Malley Administration, as crafted in this legislation, makes the blatant assumption that all agricultural land is the same when it comes to yield per acre.


In the mid-western part of the United States, there are vast amounts of flat and very fertile lands as far as the eye can see. That is where one finds what is known as the much more profitable "Corporate Farms," consisting of thousands of acres under single control. Due to economies of scale and high crop yields, the value of farmland often far exceeds that of land development value.


In our little part of the world, the typical farm consists of one to three hundred acres at best. A rolling topography often contains a moderate productive acre factor of no more than 60% of the total real estate. With rural low density development being a long standing option for value enhancement, the removal of this right by our government effectively and dramatically “downzones” the value of farmland. Stagnation and bankruptcy become a continually looming threat for many of the families who are putting food on our tables (not to mention supplying the delightful restaurants that bring so many tourists to our beloved downtown Frederick).


With such limited-use options, who wants to spend their lives playing Russian roulette with their future? Is it reasonable for us to ask that of the very people who are feeding us? Apparently Martin O’Malley thinks so.


In the end, despite the fact that our state offers a very limited and competitive source of land easement programs, such a move by our governor will accelerate the pace of the loss of our family farm ownership into the hands of non-productive uses, usually only affordable to the very wealthy.

So, to put it another way, could it be said that our governor believes that returning the family farmers to a state of serfdom is the price that must paid for stopping so-called sprawl?


Rocky Mackintosh is the owner of a land and commercial real estate firm based in Frederick. He is also the editor of the MacRo Report Blog.


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