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Under state law, all Maryland counties are supposed to designate land by the end of the year into four tiers based on whether they will be served by sewer or septic service.

To learn moreTo view proposed septic tiers in St. Mary’s County, see www.co.saint-marys.md.us/docs/TierPresentation.pdf.

The St. Mary’s County commissioners indicated Tuesday they are going to take their time implementing these new rules.

Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R) said the regulations intended to limit the use of septic systems in new construction constitute the biggest land-use change in 22 years and limit the right to build homes in certain rural areas.

Properties of 25 acres or more in the rural preservation district, outside of what are called Rural Legacy areas, will be affected, as will properties of 35 acres or more inside the Rural Legacy areas, said Sue Veith, environmental planner with the St. Mary’s County Department of Land Use and Growth Management.

That department’s staff said the new regulations affect only 2 percent of all of the lots/parcels in the county.

To control sprawl and curtail water pollution from new septic systems, the state does not want new large neighborhoods on septic systems going into rural areas and passed a law this year to drive growth back into designated areas, where they may be served by sewer lines.

The fourth tier under the new rules bans major subdivisions using septic systems. Only minor subdivisions, which can be served by septic systems, can be built in these areas. St. Mary’s County has increased from five to seven the maximum number of homes that can be built in a minor subdivision.

Of the 50,656 parcels and lots in St. Mary’s, 1,152 (2 percent) in tier four would lose rights to some building lots, Veith said.

For example, a 100-acre property in the rural preservation district currently could have 10 to as many as 33 lots by using transferable development rights. In tier four, the maximum number of lots becomes seven for that property.

“This is the biggest land-use decision since the Critical Area,” Jarboe said Tuesday. The Critical Area regulations limit the building density and impervious surface on the waterfront. Maryland created the regulations in 1986 and St. Mary’s adopted them in 1990.

The commissioners want to educate the public on the new septic tiers, but a public hearing is not required by the state to designate the tiers, unless the state has significant questions. Scheduling a public hearing would actually put the county past the Dec. 31 deadline, said Phil Shire, director of land use and growth management.

“We need to educate the public that this is a state mandate,” Jarboe said. “The county commissioners didn’t come up with this.”

“I think the people deserve an explanation,” said Commissioner Dan Morris (R).

“I agree with the board this should not be adopted today,” said Commissioner Todd Morgan (R). Holding a public hearing on the changes would be redundant because the citizens would only complain about it, he said. “We know it sucks. For people to tell us it sucks, we all nod our heads.”

St. Mary’s County Commissioner Cindy Jones (R) said, “We certainly don’t want to push the deadline, on the other hand, I don’t want to rush.”

“I have to search out the consequences of not acting on this,” Shire said.

“We’re looking at a major change, not only to zoning, but transferable development rights,” Jarboe said.

The commissioners questioned how the tier system would work under the county’s own TDR program. Adopted by the county in 2007, development in the rural preservation requires at least one TDR, and more TDRs to build more houses, up to three homes for every acre on a parcel. The TDRs can by sold by one property owner to others who want to construct more homes in rural areas than county zoning laws would otherwise permit.

Veith said Wednesday, that the TDR program hasn’t been used much because development has been going into development districts and not rural areas.

But she is expecting that will change. “There’s going to be a big demand of TDRs even with the tier system,” she said.

She told the commissioners there could be 8,272 new lots under existing county rules in rural areas in minor subdivisions at a one-home-per-5-acre density , and 12,449 new lots at a 1-in-3 density using the county’s TDR program.

The tier system will reduce that number. The 1,152 parcels that lose building lots still will be able to create 6,818 of those 8,272 lots at 1-in-5 density — and 7,431 of the current 12,449 new lots at 1-in-3 density.

The rest of the lands that would go into tier four are already in land preservation, parkland, open space or the parcel is too small for a major subdivision.

In St. Mary’s, tier one areas would be the development districts of Leonardtown and Lexington Park, town centers like Charlotte Hall, Piney Point, Callaway, Hollywood and Ridge. Tier two would be major subdivisions planned for public sewer like Town Creek, Esperanza Farms and other neighborhoods in the growth areas. Tier three would be major subdivisions already on septic systems like Country Lakes, Breton Bay and Golden Beach.

jbabcock@somdnews.com