Resolution 281, the Council action that in 2020 provided the go-ahead for Lakeside, needs to be rescinded completely, notwithstanding the well-intentioned effort by Councilwoman Price to modify it somewhat for the better. (Her proposal would limit to eighteen months the length of time that the developer can send sewage under Route 50 for treatment at Trappe’s inadequate wastewater plant on the other side of town.)
For some, “the problem with Lakeside” was suddenly defined only by pollution in La Trappe Creek, as if that’s the whole of it. Well, pollution there is obviously a serious problem. We easily forget that it became front page news only in September when photos showed up and ShoreRivers delivered dramatically bad lab results. (They show the plant—without violating its permit!–is discharging effluent every day with about thirteen (13!) times the nitrogen concentration allowed at a state-of-the-art plant, four times more than an old plant meeting antiquated “BNR” standards…and that the stream into which it is going is already laden with fecal coliform and E coli.)
So, yes, connecting any new houses to the existing plant should be prohibited. Ms. Price’s new proposal, a compromise, permits it, but—at least in theory–“only” for eighteen months. What happens at that point if a new plant on the east side is not operational? (Extensions, as always, would be the solution of least resistance.) And–a question that will have greater weight shortly as more facts come to light–is a compromise on this issue even appropriate?
In any event, concerns about Lakeside did not begin in September, and that enormous subdivision has been an issue in Talbot County for almost two decades, long before many in the County had given thought to La Trappe Creek. There are a host of other important issues with that mold-breaking subdivision, including (most importantly for me) actions that violated the integrity of our local (and state) land review processes. I hope these issues will see light of day in coming weeks.
But that is not what this Focus On Talbot is about. In researching the history of Lakeside and the developer’s efforts over almost twenty years to gain required approvals, I’ve read a good bit about the Town of Trappe, and I think I’ve learned a thing or two that I really did not appreciate at the outset. That is today’s focus, what I’d like to share.
The Town of Trappe has been the “Co-Applicant” with Rocks Engineering for almost two decades, trying to obtain the one and only approval Lakeside needs from Talbot County (the amendment to our Comprehensive Water And Sewer Plan, aka R281) and the permits needed from Maryland Department of the Environment (“MDE”) for the sewerage system. As the Town is allied with the developer and has always pushed forcefully for Lakeside when it could, you’ll understand my perception that the Town’s role in this affair was pretty negative. But having read and reflected a good deal, let’s just say my point of view is a good deal more nuanced at this point.
Don’t get me wrong. My view of the need for rescission of Resolution 281 has not changed at all. R281 needs to be reversed for a host of reasons, and that will provide the time and opportunity needed for Talbot County, the Town, the developer and MDE to agree on modifications that solve some fundamental problems.
Among the most basic—perhaps the root cause of the whole dangerous affair—is an intractable financial bind the few hundred families of Trappe found themselves in around 2002, and for which they have received little if any help since…and darn little understanding from people like me.
What do I know about Trappe, even today? Not much. I live off the St. Michaels road, and in twenty-six years have frequented the town just a handful of times….a few restaurant trips, a backroad drive, visits to a few acquaintances. Mostly, it’s shooting past Trappe on Route 50, hoping to miss the one stoplight.
But think about it. Trappe, we know, was a colonial era settlement, a village really. Who knows why in 1856 it was formally incorporated as a town? It had a link to the Choptank (La Trappe Creek not having silted in) and no doubt visions of prospering as a center of commerce or something. But for whatever reason, it remained a pretty small rural settlement based around agriculture. In 2002, there were only about 425 homes in Trappe, clustered of course.
That isn’t much bigger than many subdivisions: For example, Martingham in St. Michaels has 313 homes in it. Its history features a failed wastewater system (the design approved by, and then monitored and regulated by, MDE), and that problem was only solved when Talbot County took it over.
The Preserve at Wye Mills has 67 lots, only one sixth of Trappe. It was developed by a western shore outfit only 17 years ago (post-colonial, let’s just say), and has no residents tracing their roots in the community back a hundred years. In 2004 MDE approved the design of a spray-irrigation sewerage plant for the developer that never worked, that triggered pollution and erosion that has been going on for over fifteen years. (The developer left town long ago.). Although legal responsibility clearly rests entirely with community residents, that plant is going to be replaced shortly at tax-payer expense and taken over by the County.
Lakeside is rooted in Trappe’s pressing need to escape a financial squeeze that grew out of infrastructure costs that the old town just couldn’t seem to handle. Was Trappe first built with outhouses? Septic systems that lacked room? By 1953 it had built some sort of sewerage system, but it seems it was always playing catch-up and though with few resources itself, never got a lot of assistance from the State or County.
Around 2000, the 425 families—not wealthy folks—were (rightly) required by the state to upgrade the plant, to the tune of over $3mm (by loan), and they had no outside help. The result—sky high water and sewer bills that people really could not afford. (Flash ahead: problem unsolved, from 2013-17 the Trappe plant incurred cash deficits of about $200,000 per year—25% of the operating budget—wiping out all reserves.). Election time articles in the Star Democrat over the years convey the sense of it: candidates (often the same people, some elderly) trying to grapple with high water bills, higher sewer bills, big expenses, failing systems, no outside help.
All in all, is there any wonder what happened, circa 2002, when a deep pocket developer showed up with a deal for the little Town of Trappe? There should be a better way for Trappe to get out of its pickle.
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.
Letters to Editor
Carol Voyles says
As Maryland’s Department of Legislative Services has confirmed, “Counties are the primary unit of government responsible for most basic services such as police, fire, local corrections, sanitation, local highways, parks, and recreation.”
Councilwoman Price has suggested that relatively few homes would be connected to Trappe’s underperforming wastewater treatment plant for no more than 18 months, and that service will then be provided by Lakeside’s spray wastewater plant. We’ve also been advised that, due to weather and seasonal concerns, this is likely to remain a joint effort, and that Trappe will be responsible for both systems once Lakeside’s plant is completed.
This project has been in the planning stages for a long time. Resolution 310 does avoid delay, but may not provide the oversight required.
Douglas Firth says
Well stated as usual Dan. The brakes have to be put on for this project. This is of no benefit whatsoever to the county and especially our natural resources. It was a mistake to give this project a greenlight years ago. Since the developers have already cleared out so much land why don’t they turn it back into what it used to be years ago. Super 50 Drive In
Hugh (Jock) Beebe says
Thank you, Dan, for a thoughtful summary of Trappe’s dilemma.
The prolonged failure of Trappe’s public health infrastructure has multiple levels of failure that compile to produce such vulnerability to developers motivated by their selfish intention.
It appears that MDE’s continued, well documented failure to meet the functional responsibilities of it’s legal charter call for real action by the state government. Why isn’t Governor Hogan being called to task for allowing the inadequacy of MDE to continue?
Can you uncover something useful at the state of Maryland level to help add perspective to the Trappe problem?
tom hughes says
Mr. Watson’s comments are spot on. The predicament that Trappe finds itself in is nothing new for Talbot. He rightly points out a long history of failed wastewater systems in the county that had to be taken over by the county. Both the St. Michael system and Tilghman Island’s are now owned and operated by the county. Why? It is largely because growth (with the exception of small, locally owned businesses) costs money. The way the system works now is the developer makes the money and the taxpayer gets the bill. Some years ago efforts were made to get the county to adopt an adequate public facilities ordinance and effectual impact fees for new development. That effort was stymied by the development lobby. The chickens have now come home to roost in the form of a busted tax cap and higher town and county fees. I ask what concern has Trappe had for county and state taxpayers who will ultimately get stuck with the bill for Lakeside? Due to faulty state annexation laws the answer is, none.