Three important Resolutions concerning new sewer lines were introduced by the County Council on March 23rd. For anyone interested in the County’s future, this commentary completes the description of what’s cooking, describing the “Ferry Point” project at the southern tip of Talbot County across from Cambridge.
(If you missed the other two: First came a surprise proposal, Resolution 299, to extend a new line along almost a mile of the St. Michaels Road, from the pincushion to Easton, a sewer line fronting choice land which, if/as/when zoned for intense development, would really undermine the goals expressed in our Comprehensive Plan. The rationale? A toilet is needed at the County’s materials yard. And last week I described what’s going on at the ironically named Preserve at Wye Mills in the north end of the County, (Resolution 301) where a privately owned sewage plant desperately needs to be replaced—which is going to be done at public expense. Talbot’s citizens also have born the environmental damage from that system’s failure for much of fifteen years, the extent not fully understood by anyone yet.)
The Council’s plan at Ferry Point is to provide a small “community” sewer district for the immediate benefit of three (3) existing businesses and owners of two undeveloped commercial lots, starting the ball rolling now even though the County’s out-sourced Preliminary Engineering Report cannot identify how the effluent can be discharged legally and safely. (The new plant would sit close to the edge of the already impaired Choptank, where at that same spot the waste water effluent from Cambridge has been discharged for decades. Spraying waste effluent on the surface seems inapplicable, but there has been talk of injecting it into the ground under pressure. Or piping it across more rural landscape, to Trappe. Who knows?)
This Resolution 300, sponsored by Messrs. Divilo, Callahan and Pack, does not commit the County to anything at all, and is far from an authorization to start construction, or anything of the sort. More studies are needed, and it means almost nothing: this Resolution “merely” changes the commercial land’s designation under our Comp Plan from “Unprogrammed” to “Immediate Priority.” We’ll just be a little bit pregnant, hardly noticeable. And we need to do it if we are to get state money to do the study: Catch 22.
I remember watching a documentary on TV once, about how the Inca built swinging bridges over deep canyons in the Andes. The trick was to simply get one little line, no matter how light weight, from one side to the other. Then that little line was used pulled over something just a tiny bit bigger, and then another, and yet a bigger piece, until the next thing you know, a bridge is complete.
So, the idea here seems to be that we make this project “Immediate Priority,” in order to get state money to THEN figure some way to make it work. Is that the right sequence? Once something becomes “Immediate Priority,” does that not completely change the dynamic? And there’s no going back. It reminds one of Trappe East, where people making decisions now are inevitably influenced by the history of this long-promised project, where commitments were made so long ago no one can remember what, when and why—just that it’s been committed and so must move forward.
Some other issues to know about Ferry Point and Resolution 300: This public waste treatment plant will be pretty small, with only three commercial properties to connect immediately. The plant will be sized to add another nineteen residential properties, but as those residents apparently do not wish to bear the cost to connect, the residential tracts are being reclassified not “Immediate Priority,” but S-2, “Future Planned Sewer Service.” (As demonstrated at the Preserve at Wye Mills facility, small plants are often difficult to operate reliably, especially if the plant is designed for a greater flow than actually connects. There, and at Ferry Point and elsewhere, dwellings are designed for flows of 250 gallons per day, often nearly twice as great as actually occur. This is a systemic problem.)
As with Resolution 299 pertaining to St. Michaels Road, the fragility of our protection that the new sewer lines will only serve the identified properties and not spur unintended development (i.e., sprawl) is captured in Sections Six and Nine of the Resolution: further subdivision of the connected properties is prohibited unless “duly approved by the County Council,” and similarly as to extending connections to other properties altogether.
There is no question that the existing three commercial properties today are generating waste that is treated by septic, the treated effluent of which goes into the Choptank. Two undeveloped commercial lots (the values of which should be enhanced by Resolution 300) could also be developed on septic, and septics also serve the nineteen homes that may connect at some later time. There is also no question that properly designed and operated treatment plants, especially those meeting ‘Enhanced Nitrogen Removal” (“ENR”) standards as this plant is intended to do, get better results than septic. By that measure we should put every property in Talbot County onto a public ENR system, rather than permitting private septics. But it’s not that simple.
Bottom line: A new ENR sewer system for the Ferry Point area could be a good thing. But since the County’s Preliminary Engineering Report cannot identify a feasible means of legally and harmlessly discharging the effluent, this may not be clearly consistent with our Comprehensive Plan. It seems premature to designate any property as “Immediate Priority” for public sewer service when we don’t know what we’re doing. It starts the train rolling, no matter what, and creates a momentum that is unhelpful under the circumstances.
When suddenly introduced on March 23rd, public hearings on all three Resolutions (299, 300, and 301) were immediately set for two weeks thereafter, prior to anyone knowing much about them and prior to hearing from the Planning Commission or the Public Works Advisory Board (“PWAB”). The public hearings were, however, rescheduled—probably to May 25th. It is unclear if the PWAB has formally commented on these Resolutions, but the Planning Commission will discuss all three at their May 5th virtual meeting, 9:00 am. Maybe put it on your calendar to tune in.
Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years.