Considering the effects of a “flush tax” in Maryland

Officials in Maryland are discussing a different way of finding revenue: raising the “flush tax.”

Maryland’s already got a flush tax, it runs about $2.50 a month for sewer customers, and $30 a year for homes on septic systems. The money raised goes to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Citing the continued damage to the watershed, Md. Governor Martin O’Malley told reporters he’d consider doubling or tripling the tax…

“Right now, there’s a flat flush tax, such that a senior citizen living in the 1600 block of North Avenue pays the same flush fee as a single person living in a giant McMansion.”…

“The Governor dropped a bomb last year in his State of the State address where he proposed banning developments of five or more homes on septic systems,” says Michael Harrison, Director of Government Affairs for the Homebuilder’s Association of Maryland. Harrison says such a ban wouldn’t hurt the big national builders, but local, small scale developers who work in rural areas.

This is not an uncommon situation: a government official suggests raising or enacting a new fee tied to growth and builders respond negatively. While I can understand how raising the fee might impact future building, it seems like it would be difficult to argue that bigger houses shouldn’t have to pay a higher “flush tax.” As the tax currently stands, it is more about paying a fee per lot of development rather than for the usage of the sewers.

The talk of septic systems in suburbia reminds me of the possible problems as laid out in Adam Rome’s book The Bulldozer in the Countryside. Despite the issues with septic systems, building sewers out to more rural areas can be quite expensive for smaller communities so septic systems can seem cheaper in the short-term.

Septic tanks and McMansions

A commentator in southern Maryland discusses how the construction of McMansions in more rural areas is related to septic tanks and social class:

Public sewer might have caught up to the suburbs, but now the suburbs are leapfrogging public sewer. Although it has been slowed by the national housing crisis, the trend has been toward rural ridge tops bristling with “McMansions” like plates on the spine of a stegosaurus. These homes have problems that transcend septic. They generally gobble up land 5 acres at a time, not to mention their associated energy and transportation inefficiencies. It is indeed hard to feel sorry for these developments when cracking down on septic systems.

But at the same time big and rich developments are being scrubbed, it would be a mistake to throw country people out with the wastewater. In rural counties, lawmakers have been merciless in their attacks on anti-septic proposals, which they view as a job killer and an assault on private property rights. One Frederick County, Md., delegate called the proposed Maryland ban the worst bill he’d seen in 25 years.

There is hyperbole involved, naturally, but the danger is that septic bans, if too harsh, could make country life unaffordable for people of limited means. That’s the economics of reduced supply. Land prices in many areas have already made it difficult for people raised in rural locations to stay there. It’s proper that all sources of pollution, including septic systems, be controlled. It’s also proper that country life be protected at. The goal should be inclusive of both ideals.

Sounds like a case of competing interests: being greener (and the story suggests that a quarter of the homes in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have septic tanks leading to a pollution issue) versus keeping more rural homes affordable.

This discussion reminds me of Adam Rome’s book The Bulldozer in the Countryside which addresses the history of septic tanks in suburbia. In the suburban boom after World War II, it was often cheaper for builders to include septic tanks as suburban communities struggled to provide sewers and sewage treatment plants. In my own research into the development of local suburbs, it wasn’t until the early 1960s that communities began to see the importance of sewers and treatment plants. Eventually, many communities found ways to help pass the costs on to developers and builders through sewer hook-up fees but these were originally contentious.