Plowing old ground

As "tractorcade" protests go, the demonstration of farmers and farm vehicles in Annapolis on Tuesday morning was a modest affair with a handful of old-fashioned tractors and some equally well-worn grievances. The timetable may have been a little off, too, since the protesters' collective ire was directed at a law that the General Assembly passed last year.

Nevertheless, the group of farmers assembled at the State House to support legislation that would repeal the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012 — or, as most people know it, Gov. Martin O'Malley's septics bill. The law seeks to limit future large-scale developments that rely on septic systems.

Why prohibit developers from building a lot of homes with septic tanks? First, because failing septic tanks are a significant source of water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, but perhaps most importantly, because such individualized treatment systems enable developers to build on rural land far from cities and towns. This kind of poorly planned, sprawl development is one of the greatest threats facing the bay and its tributaries, not to mention the future of Maryland agriculture as more and more farm land succumbs to bulldozers and shopping malls.

When the measure passed last spring, we hailed it as an important if small step in improving water quality but fretted that the enforcement authority granted the state was weak. Well, it seems that particular bit of fowl has come home to roost. For even as some opponents were protesting the septics law in Annapolis, others were simply thumbing their noses at it in county seats.

In Cecil and Frederick counties, for instance, it's clear that local government is minimally invested in agricultural preservation and unlikely to deny most any rural landowners the opportunity to turn their land into a subdivision. The Maryland Department of Planning last month notified the governing commissioners in both counties that their plans come up short. In Frederick, for instance, planning officials warned that the county's proposal would release 38,720 more pounds of nitrogen into the environment each year and result in the loss of thousands of acres of forests and farmland.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman recently issued the first veto of his six years in office when the County Council produced a septics ordinance that similarly failed to pass environmental muster. How did the council in such a progressive jurisdiction fail? Chiefly by unwisely capitulating to some farmers who were unhappy to be losing potential development rights — and the possibility that they could one day sell their land to commercial interests.

But here's the problem with that kind of let-them-build thinking. It's simply not in the public interest to offer up every bit of undeveloped rural land for a future housing tract. Not for taxpayers who can't afford it, not for agriculture that will get squeezed out, and certainly not for the environment and any hope of preserving clean air and water. What's needed is "smart" growth with more development steered toward cities and towns served by water and sewer systems, and where roads, schools and public transportation are already in place.

Some counties clearly don't like having a mandate imposed on them by state government, particularly when it comes to planning and zoning. But it's not as if all rural communities are up in arms. Many have recognized the importance of agricultural preservation, have followed the septics law faithfully and have taken steps to protect their open spaces.

What's particularly troubling about the protests is that the same counties that are failing to protect their land have also been drawn into those phony-baloney "war on rural counties" protests of recent years that see every State House decision as a threat. From lawsuits aimed at environmental initiatives to "forums" attacking climate change science, certain conservative Republicans appear to be banking on a populist, know-nothing message of victimization to win voter support.

They are likely to discover that Marylanders are not so gullible. Surveys have shown that most people living in this state support reasonable restrictions on growth, and that includes limiting septic systems. They also have a deep affection for the Chesapeake Bay and know that a business-as-usual approach is not enough to restore it. Assembling a dozen or so tractors for a spin around State Circle may land protesters on the evening news, but it doesn't change the fact that this state needs to preserve its shrinking inventory of rural land.

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts
  • Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
    Related Content
    • What about Pa. manure?
      What about Pa. manure?

      On an almost recurring basis lately, The Sun has devoted itself to bringing to everyone's attention the Eastern Shore poultry industry's polluted runoff flowing into the Chesapeake Bay ("Larry Hogan has a chance to be a green governor," Dec. 13). Attention should be directed to the Amish...

    • New rules needed to protect Eastern Shore waterways

      After talking about it for years, Maryland finally has proposed long-overdue regulations on phosphorous pollution from animal manure in the Chesapeake Bay ("Hogan vows to fight farm pollution rules," Dec. 8).

    • Big Ag must be held to account for bay pollution

      Dan Rodricks' arguments for protecting the Chesapeake Bay from pollution from chicken farms could have been even stronger ("Larry Hogan has a chance to be a green governor," Dec. 13).

    • Md. leaders protect funds for bay cleanup
      Md. leaders protect funds for bay cleanup

      Senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, along with Rep. Steny Hoyer, deserve our thanks for securing funding in the recent omnibus appropriations bill to keep Maryland on track to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams ("For better or worse, spending bill passes," Dec. 15).

    • Rodricks wrong on bay pollution

      It is time for those writing for The Sun's editorial pages to check their facts. Columnist Dan Rodricks writes that poultry farmers are allowing their chicken manure to run into the Chesapeake Bay ("Larry Hogan has a chance to be a green governor," Dec. 13.

    • Chicken industry threatens all other bay businesses

      Dan Rodricks' column on Gov.-elect Larry Hogan and the Chesapeake Bay missed an important fact: Mr. Hogan's pro-poultry industry comments and pledges are actually deeply hurtful to most Eastern Shore businesses ("Larry Hogan has a chance to be a green governor," Dec. 13).

    • Compost chicken manure, don't burn it

      Dan Rodricks' recent column urged the new governor to get a large-scale poultry waste incinerator built on the Eastern Shore ("Larry Hogan has a chance to be a green governor," Dec. 13). This awful idea has been floated for 15 years now and has gone nowhere despite an array of government...

    • Fix the Conowingo before another Hurricane Agnes hits [Letter]
      Fix the Conowingo before another Hurricane Agnes hits [Letter]

      I read with interest commentator Anirban Basu's article touting what a great asset the Conowingo dam is and how it enhances the lives of all Marylanders ("Support the dam to support Md.," Oct. 13).

    Comments
    Loading