WILMINGTON "“ The New Castle County Council unanimously approved an 18-month extension of its moratorium on the use of septic systems in subdivisions on Jan. 14, denying the Meyer administration's proposal to make the moratorium permanent amid outcry from farmers.
Council members were able to find consensus on the controversial issue by enacting a sunset clause of Aug. 26, 2021. If no subsequent legislation is approved by council prior to that date, then the moratorium in the suburban (S) zone will be lifted for builders.
Although the council did not approve the permanent moratorium that his Department of Land Use had sought, New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer touted the temporary extension as a win for his environmentally focused Green Agenda.
"Tonight, our county took another step forward to protect our precious water resources," Meyer said in a statement. "We thank county council for their vote for smart development and to conserve open spaces for future generations."
Stuart Ramsey, president of the New Castle County Farm Bureau, who has been a vocal opponent of a permanent moratorium because he argues it would be detrimental for farmland values, thanked the council during its meeting for approving a temporary extension.
"I think the additional time will allow everybody to get this right and to allow for the best science and a transparent, objective process," he said. "I think this is a good example of not getting the cart ahead of the horse, which was a little bit of where we were before."
Jennifer Kmiec, executive director of the Committee of 100, a non-partisan nonprofit that works to promote responsible economic policy, said her organization also supported the temporary extension.
"We feel that the sunset period to August 2021 will give a period to spend some more time with this, make sure the transfer of development rights (TDR) program is put into place to protect the land and bring in groups like [the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control]," she said.
Councilman Bill Bell, one of two representatives for southern New Castle County where the proposed bill will have an outsized impact, first proposed the temporary extension during a Land Use Committee meeting in December, and it picked up support from many of his colleagues who held reservations on the policy.
The debate comes as the county wrestles with how to control explosive growth in the Middletown-Odessa-Townsend area. Much of that building is in the county's planned growth corridor, largely the area between Del. 896 and U.S. 13. In the past few years, however, county land use officials have expressed concerns about the amount of proposed development in areas known as the East Wing, roughly east of U.S. 13 and north of Pole Bridge Road, and the West Wing, roughly west of Route 896 and north of Bunker Hill Road.
These areas lack county sanitary sewer service but are within planned service areas. Without a timeline for service, however, major subdivision proposals have been floated for communities that would rely upon septic tanks in these areas. Arguing that the increased use of septic would lead to sprawl and further risk polluting state waterways, the county Department of Land Use successfully lobbied for a one-year moratorium in 2018 on major land development plans that utilize septic systems with the requirement that it study the problem and suggest a solution.
With the original moratorium set to expire on Feb. 29, land use officials were proposing that the prohibition be extended permanently. That plan drew a fierce debate from farmers, whose land value would be affected by lessening development rights, and environmentalists, who say the benefit to the watershed is most important.
Lois Cahall, a small farm owner off Vance Neck Road near Middletown, exemplified the former group, telling the council Jan. 14 that, "When we had all of the building going on in Middletown, we had developers beating down our doors, but we believe in keeping open land. We feel like this was just thrown on us and it's taken away our ability to make an option if we decided we did want to sell. This is our nest egg."
Meanwhile, groups like the Delaware Nature Society represented the environmental interests, but they too voiced support for the extension.
"Septic systems have much greater potential to pollute natural waters compared to sewer," Delaware Nature Society Executive Director Anne Harper said in a statement. "Limiting new homes on septic is a win for clean water. Thank you to all the water advocates who spoke up in support, as well as to county council and the county executive for their work on this important issue."
By Jacob Owens