SNOW HILL – Worcester officials this week sent a proposed bill that would shrink the size of the buffer on county-owned spray irrigation systems back to the drawing board after concluding what is good for the goose should be good for the gander.
The County Commissioners on Tuesday held a public hearing on a proposed piece of legislation that would allow the buffer on government-owned spray irrigation systems throughout Worcester County to be reduced from the existing 300 feet to 100 feet.
In the systems, wastewater is treated in a plant to practically drinking water quality and dispersed over designated land areas through a series of spray nozzles. The treated wastewater is then absorbed back into the land and in most cases used for irrigation.
But because of uncertainties about the quality of the treated effluent and its potential impact on neighboring properties, a 300-foot buffer has been required around lands designated for spray irrigation. A bill reviewed by the commissioners this week would allow the buffer to be shrunk to 100 feet to allow more land to be utilized for the wastewater treatment method.
The reduction would free up 200 more feet of land surrounding land designated for spray irrigation, making thousands more acres eligible for the process and thereby greatly increasing sewer capacity. A pillar of the county’s comprehensive plan is to increase spray irrigation as a method of disposing of treated wastewater in an effort to reduce direct discharge into the creeks and streams.
However, language in the bill as written would only apply the change to spray irrigation sites owned and operated by the county or its municipalities. Worcester Director of Development Review and Permitting Ed Tudor told the commissioners shrinking the buffers represents a major shift in policy on spray irrigation for the county and applying the new regulation to government-owned systems only is a necessary first step to see if there are any problems with it.
“This is a fundamental shift in our policy on spray irrigation,” he said. “We looked at what could be done in the code to make it easier for the towns when they are spraying high-quality effluent. The point of this is to encourage the towns to expand spray irrigation.”
Tudor said expanding the buffer for private sector systems could be revisited in the future. He also said some private spray irrigation systems do not have a great track record with the wastewater disposal method.
“We’re looking at taking baby steps first,” he said. “Honestly, our experience recently with private spray irrigation systems has not been great. At least the ones we’re familiar with have not been doing very well.”
Commissioner Judy Boggs, for one, agreed with the plan to start with just the public sector spray sites.
“We’ve always been conservative and cautious in the past,” she said. “If it works and it’s done well, it’s possible to expand it in the future. We might be opening something too broad too fast by including everything.”
However, other commissioners voiced concern about the double standard created by the proposed bill.
“I have a huge problem with the double standard,” said Commissioner Bob Cowger. “We tell them we can do it this way, but you have to do it another way.”
Tudor explained one reason for limiting the change to publicly-owned spray sites is a concern the potential expanded sewer capacity could open the door for new private sector development.
“In the private sector, the big difference is if spray irrigation is a profit motivator,” he said.
Commissioner Louise Gulyas rebuffed the notion, however, pointing out the private sector should be encouraged to go to spray irrigation even if it is for their own benefit.
“There is nothing wrong with making a profit,” she said. “This is America. If they do everything else right, they should be able to utilize the same benefits. We cannot have two different standards.”
In most cases, private developers finance and construct sewer systems in order to facilitate their projects and then turn the facilities over to county to own and operate. There are examples where sewer treatment plants remain in the private sector, however, according to local attorney Mark Cropper, who told the commissioners on Tuesday the intent of the buffer change could be lost if it applies only to public sector systems.
“If Worcester County is serious about spray irrigation, then by God, support it, encourage it,” he said. “There is no good reason to distinguish between private and public facilities. Please revise this and make it equitable for everybody.”
Property owner Mitch Parker said everyone has known for a decade or more spray irrigation is the way to go with sewer treatment and also voiced concern about the double standard.
“On the private side, where’s my incentive to do a better job?” he said. “Just because we’re a private company doesn’t mean we can’t run a safe, efficient operation, just as on the public side, there is no guarantees of running a safe and efficient operation.”
The commissioners voted to send the proposed bill back to staff for further review and to consider applying the same regulations to the private sector.