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New Castle County bans southern septic subdivisions   

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As the Middletown area grows quickly, county officials sought to restrain sprawl to areas built up with sewer service, like The Estate at St. Anne’s, seen here. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN

NEW CASTLE – The New Castle County Council voted in late August to ban major subdivisions on septic systems, in a bid to protect water quality and limit sprawl development in the county’s rural areas south of the C&D Canal.

The split vote permanently extended County Executive Matt Meyer’s three-year moratorium on the use of septic systems in developments with more than five parcels – regardless of property size – in the county’s Suburban (S) zone.

Under Substitute 1 to Ordinance No. 21-018, which passed 8-4, owners of properties with on-lot wastewater systems can transfer development rights to lots served by sewer.

The ordinance’s targeted areas include the East Wing, roughly east of U.S. Route 13 and north of Pole Bridge Road, and the West Wing, roughly west of Route 896 and north of Bunker Hill Road.

Both areas currently lack county sanitary sewer service but are within planned service areas. Without a timeline, however, major subdivision proposals have been floated for communities that would rely on septic tanks in those areas over the past few years.

Arguing that the increased use of septic would lead to sprawl and further risk pollution of state waterways, the New Castle County Department of Land Use successfully lobbied in 2018 for a one-year moratorium on major development plans that utilize septic systems, keeping future major subdivisions in limbo as county officials worked to come up with a solution.

Ten years ago, that department saw proposals for fewer than 90 units of septic, but in the last three years that number has increased tenfold, a sign of rapid growth in the county’s housing market, especially in the Middletown area.

Environmental groups like the Delaware Nature Society and some county officials believe the recent vote will help direct development to infrastructure that protects water quality: According to Meyer’s environmental initiative GreeNCC, 90% of Delaware’s water bodies are currently polluted, and the average home on a septic system pollutes significantly more nitrogen to the environment than the same home on central sewer. Richard Hall, general manager of the county’s department of land use, noted in a previous meeting that septic systems have a roughly 20-year lifespan, with that time shortened if not properly maintained.

The New Castle County Council unanimously approved an 18-month extension of Meyer’s initial moratorium in January 2020, giving county officials more time to study the problem.

Without a permanent moratorium, which went into immediate effect Aug. 31, the county’s suburban zoning district had the potential for more than 5,000 new septic-dependent lots.

Opposition to the ban drew from a diverse group, including farmers who argued their land values would drop under the development restriction, as well as residents worried that it would contribute to high-density housing in areas that lack the infrastructure and emergency services for more homes.

Council President Karen Hartley-Nagle voted against the ordinance.

“I just can’t believe we would devalue farmers’ land and not compensate them,” she said during the contentious hours-long meeting. “We’re going to lose what is left of the farmers in the county because we are not supporting them, and now we’re taking away value from the farms.”

Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, supported the ordinance.

“I’ve seen the downside of septic systems that were well-intended in other parts of the state that ended up failing and caused massive impacts on the waterways, and massive cost to homeowners,” he said during the Aug. 31 meeting. “This is an opportunity to set it right.”

At the same time, O’Mara encouraged safeguards like farmland preservation programs to help farmers in New Castle County.

“I think if we do those three pieces around amenities, farmland preservation and smart infrastructure, we can have the kind of planning that frankly nowhere else in the state has, that maintains the rural landscape, and has the high-quality natural resources and the housing that we’re going to need as the population continues to grow,” O’Mara said.

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