With no one paying any attention, the Talbot County Council on Tuesday night is holding the one public hearing on legislation that is the first critical step to build a new sewer line that ultimately could trigger major development along the St. Michaels Road (Rt 33). And since it affects a strategic spot in our community, it surely works against maintaining the “rural character” of Talbot County as required by our Comprehensive Plan.
This legislation, “Resolution 299,” is the first step required to build a new force main sewer line running nearly a mile along the St. Michaels Road from Carroll’s Market eastward to a parcel owned by the County that abuts the Town of Easton. Think about the implications of this: sewer from Easton right out to that stoplight at “the Pincushion.” On the north side are three very large wooded parcels wrapping around a few small homes; on the south side are four or five large farm parcels, one over 300 acres. This land is as ripe as it gets for intense residential and/or commercial development if/as/when it’s rezoned by the County Council in the future—and if it has sewer available. Resolution 299 is the essential first step to get the ball rolling for sewer.
Resolution 299 was “introduced” at the end of the last meeting by vote of all Council Members except Mr. Lesher–but which member actually caused the Resolution to be drafted and brought up at the meeting is not public. Mr. Callahan asked the County engineer to explain the legislation that no one had previously heard of, and he did so in exactly one minute (literally). He offered not a single word as to WHY a sewer connection is needed for the Repurposing Facility. (When the Planning Commission approved the Repurposing Facility, sewer was never mentioned.)
Only Mr. Lesher had any questions, and confirmed that neither the Repurposing Facility nor other adjacent properties are in the critical area nor are any failing septic systems involved. The project is estimated to cost the County approximately $180,000—but already there is talk of cutting costs by permitting other lots to hook up. A harbinger?
Here is the sole reason stated in Resolution 299 for running a new force main along the most strategic piece of roadway in Talbot County: “the Repurposing Center requires sewer to support the office and operations on the site.”
The Repurposing Facility was recently built “for the recycling of road materials, concrete from construction debris, wood debris from fallen and diseased trees and brush associated with storm events”—that is, it’s a big materials yard. No processing is connected to the sewer line of course, so the sole issue is a toilet for the few workmen on site. The yard is equipped at present with a porta-potty which would see adequate, but if for some reason an actual bathroom is required, it is not obvious why a septic system of the smallest scale could not be built on the 105-acre site. There were zero questions about any of this by County Council members before four voted in favor of proceeding.
(The Star Democrat did cover this meeting: the next day’s paper sported a photo of the Council President and a two-inch headline, front page above the fold—announcing that the Council will continue for now to hold virtual meetings. Not a word about the new sewer line on Route 33, or two other very important sewer issues that also came quickly before the Council. The paper also made a point to bring up a six-month-old exchange about the Talbot Boys Statue, even though that topic did not even come up at the meeting.)
The public hearing on Resolution 299 comes before the Council in virtual session on Tuesday evening, April 13th, at 6:30 PM. As drafted, the Resolution recites that the proposed amendment to the County Comprehensive Water and Sewer Plan “has been submitted to the Talbot County Planning Commission and the Talbot County Public Works Advisory Board for review for consistency” with the Comp Plan. That is not true—such meetings have not yet occurred so the public currently does not have the benefit of these independent reviews that would better inform us—for example, why the Resolution changes the proposed use of a 105-acre parcel to “office/retail.” Or how to reconcile this sewer extension into the “Easton Greenbelt,” land purposefully designated “Countryside Preservation” in the County’s Comprehensive Plan.
Some people, including County Council members I’m sure, will assert I am making a mountain out of a molehill: that this project is just needed so the men at the repurposing yard can have a toilet to use; that the Resolution itself is a only a formality, “merely” changing the classification of one lot from “Unprogrammed” to “Immediate Priority;” that it does not itself authorize construction, and many future steps are needed anyway; and most importantly, that this does not pertain to any property other than the Repurposing Facility, i.e., none of that prime property along Rt. 33 can connect to this sewer line, and is well protected by zoning and our Comprehensive Plan.
To which I would reply: don’t be foolish. The journey from farm field to sprawl begins somewhere, often unnoticed. And slow at first…more like an infection that a bombshell.
Once this lot, hard upon the Town boundary, is classified “Immediate Priority,” (a position already supported by four members!), the development train begins slowly to leave the station. Things happen that seem the fulfillment of earlier commitments, and “always intended.” (Consider, for example, Trappe East.) Once the line is in place, hookups generate more money to the County, and service fees to cover operating costs. Indeed Resolution 299 already provides “for recoupment of a portion of the construction costs from other lots served by other lots served by the force main that may be authorized to connect to it in the future.”
Our only defense is the express protection embedded in Resolution 299 against “connecting other properties” and against “further subdivision.” And oh, how fragile, weak–and political–it is: just like rezoning, no subdivision or additional connections can be made “unless duly approved by the County Council.”
I am not into conspiracy theories and do not allege some malevolent scheme behind Resolution 299. But it is bad for Talbot County’s commitments to maintain our rural character and to oppose sprawl. Was it not so dangerous, providing a single toilet for a materials yard would a laughable justification for such a costly and impactful undertaking.
Focus on Talbot indeed!
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.