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WMCCA Briefs: Untenable Situation of Glen Hills Landowners

The Department of Environmental Protection has completed Phase 1 of the Sanitary Study of the Glen Hills area. The 2002 Potomac Master Plan called for a limited study of failed septic systems in this region to find on-site remedies or, where needed, recommend limited sewer extensions. The DEP expanded the study to include all septic systems and wells in the area, as well as including neighborhoods outside Glen Hills. After finding that only nine of 542 properties had failed systems, the DEP has moved on to Phase 2 of the Study focused on recommendations for sewer extensions to a large number of properties.

WMCCA Meeting

The West Montgomery County Citizens Association at the Potomac Community Center on Wednesday, Nov. 14, at 7:15 p.m.

If schools are closed because of inclement weather, the meeting will be cancelled.

The speaker will be David W. Lake, special assistant/Office of the Director, Water and Wastewater Policy, Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection.

DEP is engaged in a study of Glen Hills and surrounding neighborhoods, an area of Potomac southwest of Rockville. The study area includes 542 properties, 87 percent of which are improved with single-family houses. The majority of existing homes in the study area use wells and septic systems for their water supply and wastewater disposal. There are two phases to the study. Phase I was recently completed and identified those lots DEP has determined are not sustainable for septic system use. Phase 2 is currently underway. DEP has stated that the "intent of Phase 2 is to provide the County Council with information and sewer service policy recommendations related to the feasibility of long-term septic system use in the study area." A public meeting to review the draft Phase 2 report is planned for mid-January. Lake will discuss progress and findings of the study. As always, the public is welcome to attend.

Most concerning is that DEP has declared 224 properties unsustainable for septic use without performing any site visits or inspections, and even though only five of those properties are among the nine that have been identified as actually having a failed septic. This designation was made and posted on the Glen Hills Study public website without providing notice to any of the 224 homeowners, without disclosing the specific bases for the determination, and without providing an opportunity for a homeowner to appeal and publicly rebut this determination.

The Phase 1 study used eight different parameters to determine sustainability of a septic system. These include soil type, topography, depth to bedrock, perk rates, proximity to streams, and groundwater depth. If a property fails to meet any one of the criteria it has been labeled as unsustainable, even though DEP admits that not meeting just one of the criteria may not mean that a system is unsustainable. In Phase 2, DEP is concentrating on drawing up plans to extend sewer lines to the 224 properties that have failed to meet even just one of the criteria.

The Glen Hills region is designated by the Potomac Master Plan to be outside the sewer envelope. This area was planned to be lower density housing with minimum one-acre lots to protect sensitive stream valleys from over-development. The extension of sewer lines permits maximum build out on lots, including much larger housing footprints, as well as construction on environmentally sensitive land. The environmental studies that were conducted as part of the Master Plan process provided extensive documentation regarding the impact maximum build out of Glen Hills would have on water quality in the Watts Branch and Piney Branch streams which, in turn, flow into the Potomac near the intake for WSSC's drinking water filtration plant. Maintaining Glen Hills on septic and outside the sewer envelope was a conscious decision to ensure its important role as a water quality recharge area and to ensure that it would not become a source of water quality degradation.

Sewer systems are not the panacea that they are being portrayed. The recent heavy rains caused an estimated 240 million gallons of raw sewage from treatment plants to be released into area waterways. The cost to run new sewer lines can run from $40,00 to $100,000 per house to hook up. Sewer lines develop leaks and are costly and disruptive to repair. Sewers allow higher-density infill development.

Septic systems effectively remove biological contaminants and have the added benefit of recharging the water table. Furthermore, a wide variety of advanced septic systems have been developed to deal with areas where conventional gravity-fed systems don’t provide adequate treatment. These systems can address conditions such as insufficient land, poor soil, shallow soil over bedrock, proximity to streams, or high groundwater — the very conditions DEP used to characterize systems as “unsustainable.” These advanced systems are sometimes more expensive to install than conventional systems, but are still a fraction of the cost of sewers.

The labeling of septic systems as unsustainable without inspecting them or examining alternative systems may have serious consequences for those homeowners. The ability to sell or even do renovations to their homes could be jeopardized. At the very least, it would negatively affect the value of a property. Given the untenable situation in which the 224 homeowners have been placed, on Oct. 15, 2012, WMCCA wrote to Robert Hoyt, the DEP director, and requested his immediate assistance. In particular, WMCCA asked that the "unsustainable lot" designations be removed from the website and that actual notice be given to all affected homeowners regarding the basis for their specific lot determination and a meaningful way for them to rebut these allegations. WMCAA also requested that DEP post on the study website copies of the contractor's scopes of work for Phase I and Phase II, as well as a list of costs already incurred for Phase I and Phase II and the proposed budget for Phase II. DEP has not responded to our letter nor taken any of the steps we requested. In the meantime, WMCCA is considering ways that we can notify homeowners and take other collective actions.

— Shawn Justement, WMCCA President

Glenstone/Railes Sewer Category Change Update

As [this] goes to print, no information has been received regarding whether the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) has approved or disapproved the Montgomery County Council's approval of sewer for this private art museum located on Glen Road. WMCCA has urged MDE to reject the sewer category change because it is inconsistent with the Potomac Subregion Master Plan.

Under Maryland law, MDE must determine whether the category change is consistent with the Master Plan within 90 days after the proposed category change was submitted by the County Council to MDE for approval. Depending on which day the Aug. 7, 2012 submission letter by the County Council was received by MDE, the 90 days period should expire on or about Nov. 5, 2012.

— Susanne Lee

Brickyard Road School Site Update

To date, the Board of Education (BOE) has refused to consider the offer made to them by the Brickyard Coalition to drop their current lawsuit if the BOE will recall the land (as they have the right to do under their lease with the county) in exchange for several conditions. The BOE has been spending taxpayer money in excess of $200,000 in related legal fees on this 18-month long struggle for an open process. The offer still stands. It is disturbing to learn that school Superintendent Joshua Starr has adamantly defended his predecessor who pushed the decision to lease the land in the first place. Dr. Starr is an important influence on discussions taking place at the BOE on the Brickyard site. Especially troubling is the fact that Dr. Starr chose to weigh in on a land use issue in Potomac which is well outside his position and has nothing to do with the BOE, namely the Glenstone sewer category change, which he publicly supported in writing. Meanwhile, the Brickyard Coalition is hopeful that School Board elections will yield a BOE more willing to discuss settlement while the Circuit Court Stay remains in place awaiting a court date in early 2013.

— Ginny Barnes