Last week this column described a sudden threat to the goals of our Comprehensive Plan (protecting the rural character of Talbot County): out of the blue, four Council Members introduced Resolution 299 to extend a new force main sewer line along St. Michaels Road from the pincushion to Easton. Apparently triggered by readers’ reaction, the public hearing slated for the following evening was abruptly postponed indefinitely by the Council to await hearing from the Public Works Advisory Board and Planning Commission, bodies that indeed should have been consulted prior to holding a public hearing. (See “Sewer Bombshell?”, )
Most Talbot citizens are equally unaware of two other important sewer matters introduced simultaneously with Resolution 299, each of which is also troubling in its own way. They directly affect the north and south ends of the County respectively.
Up in Wye Mills is a small privately-owned wastewater treatment plant that, literally for years, has been operating in violation of its permit, often discharging nutrient pollution (nitrogen and phosphorus) and perhaps harmful bacteria into the surface and groundwater at the head of the Wye River. Resolution 301 is a complex ordinance intended to deal with the problem—which is indeed necessary and urgent to solve. So that is good.
But the public—who it seems is going to bear the costs—should know about the problem, how it arose, why it wasn’t caught much earlier, and who is being bailed out and why. There are important lessons for both the public and the County Council to learn from this fiasco, small in scale as it is, and these lessons are immediately applicable to other sewer and waste water discharge issues that are current events.
Here’s the background: In 2004 the County permitted an Annapolis developer to build this 67-lot community in the middle of a rural farm field off of Old Wye Mills Road to be served by its own privately owned wastewater plant. The County authorized the treatment plant under a formal agreement (the “Facility Agreement”) among the developer, a new Homeowners’ Association (“HOA”), the Talbot County Department of Public Works, and the County Health Department that is recorded in the land records and encumbers every lot in the subdivision. The project was also predicated on the Maryland Department of Environment (“MDE”) having also issued a discharge permit to spread the effluent from the treatment plant onto the adjoining field—which is about 150 yards from Mill Creek, a headwater of the Wye River.
Among other things, the Facility Agreement provides that the HOA operate the WWTP in accordance with all regulations, including environmental regs of course, and submit operational and financial reports to County authorities. Unequivocally, all costs related to this treatment plant, including repairs and replacement, are to be born pro-rata by the 67 lot-owners, and charges become a lien on each property, just like taxes. Separate from MDE’s oversight, the purpose of the Facility Agreement was to give Talbot County broad rights and responsibilities for monitoring and inspecting the plant and its operations, including financial reports from the HOA concerning its expenditures and reserves.
Bottom line, Talbot County consistently ignored its responsibilities under the Facility Agreement, apparently assuming that MDE would assure everything was in order. But that was not so, and it seems that for a very long period—years—the plant has been operating far below standard, with serious violations regarding discharge of nutrient pollutants into the groundwater. (The information the County has gotten from MDE seems clear on this, but it is not an exhaustive picture covering the plant’s 15-year history.)
Purportedly, the homeowners have already spent all they can to remedy the problem, to no avail, and the plant—which may have basic design flaws—apparently needs to be demolished and replaced.
This legislation, Resolution 301, is a bit complex, but the idea is that once a preliminary engineering report is completed (to actually define the extent of the problems), the County will agree to take ownership if it can arrange for a grant (or loan?) from the State to replace the treatment plant. (The essential first step—that engineering report—will be funded by the County with costs to be recovered from lot owners as if it were a loan.)
If this all works out, a new, better plant will solve everything, hopefully paid for not by Talbot Countians alone, but by taxpayers of the State. Viola!
(A worrisome and easily overlooked provision of Resolution 301 is to use this new plant as a means to extend sewer lines elsewhere, outside the subject community. That cart would seem to be far out in front of the horse; the idea could be a good way to deal with septic problems if present, and it could be very dangerous, upsetting development and land use considerations set out in the Comprehensive Plan. That important issue needs separate and careful consideration, and ought not be just a toss-off idea formally adopted up front as part of Resolution 301.)
Is this situation not one more example of “private gain at public cost?” Who in this story reaped benefits? First, the original landowner, who sold his farm field for development. Then, the Annapolis developer, who predictably was long gone before the problems became visible. Obviously, the HOA and the community’s homeowners, who are being relieved of a terrific liability. But many would be pretty empathetic to these folks; few homebuyers do deep research on utilities, and no doubt were told (accurately) that the lot “was sewered”—having no idea of the implications. Real estate agents, who should all have known about this, are unlikely to have talked up the problem and risked killing a sale.
Who in the story pays the cost? If replacing this plant is funded by an MDE grant, then state taxpayers take the direct financial hit and it’s not all on Talbot Countians. Still, one direct cost we locals cannot escape is the adverse impact of fifteen years of nutrient pollution into our Wye River, which will continue every day even long after a new plant is built, given what’s already in the groundwater.
Finally, note that this Resolution, and the problem it is intended to solve, were both explained publicly in front of the Council on March 23 in fewer than sixty seconds and not a single question was asked—it was enacted without discussion. The legislation itself recites as its rationale merely that “the HOA has experienced issues with the wastewater treatment plant…,” and a reader would have no idea of the extent of the problem or how the County let it come to this point. (The public hearing was to have happened on April 13, but it was caught up with Resolution 299 in being postponed indefinitely.) The Star Democrat has never covered this matter, and very few citizens know anything about the problem, why it occurred, and how our Council intends to fix it.
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.