To beachbound travelers, Trappe may be little more than a “speed awareness zone” encountered on their drive to Ocean City, MD. As U.S. Route 50 bypasses the little town on the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore, about all motorists see is a scattering of modest houses and a handful of gas stations, convenience stores and businesses.

That could begin to change soon. A developer aims to break ground by year’s end on the first phase of Lakeside, a planned community of 2,501 homes and apartments, a 30-acre lake and a small shopping center. All of it is to be built on undeveloped land the town annexed nearly two decades ago.

If those plans are realized, the quiet Talbot County community of about 1,000 people — which boasts a museum celebrating rural life — could grow sixfold in the next 10–20 years. That would vault it from being Maryland’s 99th largest municipality to 38th. And on the Eastern Shore, it would go from the 20th to the fifth most populous, leapfrogging places like Centreville, Chestertown and St. Michaels.

Officials of the fiscally strapped town voted for the 2003 annexation, which more than doubled Trappe’s land area, with the hope that it would yield not just more residents, but closer shopping and additional tax revenue to help cover its debts and pay for a police department.

Some neighboring residents and environmentalists, though, question the scale of that proposed growth and its environmental impacts. They’re worried about how sewage from the Lakeside development will be handled. They’re also concerned about the potential for polluted runoff from the proposed pavement and buildings. And they’ve gone to court in a bid to block a key permit for the project.

Much of the 860-acre Lakeside tract drains to the headwaters of Miles Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River. Both water bodies already suffer from nutrient and sediment pollution.

To address sewage concerns, the developer plans to build a new plant to serve the development, which is projected to eventually generate 540,000 gallons of wastewater per day. Instead of discharging treated sewage into a tributary of the Choptank, the plan is to spray it on grass fields in the northeast corner of the development that could soak up the nutrient-enriched moisture.

Wastewater concerns

Those fields are just across Miles Creek near where Woody Lambert lives with his wife and four children.

“I’m primarily concerned with the safety of my family,” said Lambert, a county schoolteacher. He said he’s worried about the potential for spray or odors drifting across the creek, as well as the potential for nutrients and other contaminants getting into the creek.

That latter concern is shared by environmental groups.

“The Choptank is an impaired waterbody so, anything we do, we have to be very certain that we’re not adding to that impairment,” said Choptank Riverkeeper Matt Pluta.

Pluta, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and some Trappe area residents have pressed the Maryland Department of the Environment to rethink its decision — first made in 2005 and tentatively renewed in 2019 — to approve the project’s wastewater treatment plan.

But in late December, the MDE approved a groundwater discharge permit for the project, effective Feb. 1 — while including several conditions urged by critics.

The permit requires the developer to equip the plant for enhanced nutrient removal, significantly lowering the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the wastewater before spraying it on up to 88 acres of grassy fields. The developer also must build a lagoon to store wastewater for up to 75 days during winter and other times of the year when it’s raining or too windy to spray.

Pluta welcomed those and other changes, which he said seem to reduce chances of degrading nearby waterways. But he and others still question how well the system will work and how carefully it will be monitored by regulators.

“Can this really achieve zero discharge?” he asked.

On Jan. 28, dissatisfied with the water quality safeguards in the permit and the way the MDE approved it, ShoreRivers petitioned the Talbot County Circuit Court to review the state agency’s decision. The Bay Foundation filed a similar petition on Feb. 1 on behalf of itself and a trio of neighboring landowners, including Lambert and his wife.

“The department’s approval of this wastewater permit sets a risky new precedent enabling large developments to use spray irrigation to bypass Bay pollution reduction requirements,” said Alan Girard, the foundation’s Eastern Shore director. The group contends that the MDE lacked sufficient evidence to assert that, contrary to other studies of spray irrigation, none of the nutrients in the sprayed wastewater would migrate through groundwater to the creek.

MDE spokesman Jay Apperson defended the agency’s permit decision, saying it was “based on sound science and in keeping with the requirements of all applicable laws and regulations.” He noted that regulators had extended the public comment period on the proposed permit and made two changes to make it more stringent.

Discharging wastewater onto the ground via spray irrigation is not uncommon in Maryland, particularly in rural areas. The MDE has approved it for 33 municipalities across the state, touting it as a way to accommodate development in places where waterways are overloaded with nutrient pollution.

“If the desire is to grow, or there are opportunities to grow, then this is one way to provide or minimize any pollution impact to the environment,” said Lee Currey, director of the MDE’s water and science administration.

But environmentalists and neighboring residents say they’re worried that spray irrigation could still contribute to the nutrient pollution in streams, rivers and the Bay.

Relying on nature

“We’re starting to see more reliance on spray irrigation, specifically … when it comes to adding development, which means we need to be asking hard questions about how effective it is from a nutrient reduction standpoint,” said Erik Fisher, the Bay Foundation’s assistant Maryland director.

“You’re relying on nature to treat the effluent, and nature is highly variable,” he added. “The growing seasons can change, the crop yield can change. The precipitation you’re getting from the sky is highly variable.”

The permit allows the treatment plant to douse the field with an average of 2 inches of treated wastewater per week. In a normal year, Talbot County only gets half that much rainfall, meaning the fields will receive an uncommon amount of water. Plus, the facility would be allowed to spray 4 inches or more in some weeks to make up for when it’s not allowed to spray. The permit bars spraying when it’s raining, windy or when the ground is frozen or saturated.

Ching-Tzone Tien, the MDE’s deputy wastewater permits director, said the orchard grass the developer has proposed to grow in the fields normally consumes far more nutrients than the treated wastewater would provide. So, not only will it soak up all of the development’s nutrients, he said, the grass may require additional fertilization.

The nutrient management plan the town and developer submitted to the MDE calls for frequent mowing of the orchard grass and removal of the clippings. That could prevent the nutrients taken up by the vegetation’s growth from cycling back into the soil.

Even so, Pluta and others have raised questions about accountability and public transparency.

Wastewater plants must monitor their discharge and file monthly reports with regulators that are available for public review. The facility at Lakeside will have to file the same reports, and the operator must keep a daily log of weather and soil conditions to document that spraying only occurred when it should have. But that log will be kept onsite, where state inspectors can review it but not necessarily the public. The MDE only inspects small plants like the planned Lakeside facility every five years.

The nonprofit Chesapeake Legal Alliance recently reviewed MDE inspection reports for all 251 groundwater discharge permits in Maryland. In a report to ShoreRivers, Pluta’s group, it said inspectors found noncompliance or corrective action needed at more than half of the operations inspected in the latter half of 2019.

Low rate of compliance

Over the last four years, the alliance added, MDE data showed that only about 25% of facilities with groundwater discharge permits were found to be fully in compliance when inspected. On the Eastern Shore, 58 of 108 groundwater permits were in noncompliance between fiscal year 2017 and the first half of fiscal year 2020. Yet it appeared there were relatively few enforcement actions taken.

The MDE’s Tien said that there will be a network of 12 monitoring wells around the spray fields and three surface water gages at the Lakeside project. Any increase in nutrients above limits set by the MDE could result in a citation. The wells are to be sampled every three months, with data to be reported to the MDE once yearly, but the permit calls for prompt notification if any permit limits are exceeded.

The development is to be built out in five phases, and the MDE permit specifies that the agency must review and approve the spray irrigation operation before each phase begins.

While supporters and critics have been sparring the past two years over Lakeside’s wastewater treatment, environmentalists say they’re also worried about the impact of stormwater runoff.

At a Trappe Town Council hearing in November 2020, the Choptank Riverkeeper cited research by the state Department of Natural Resources finding fewer fish, mussels and aquatic insects in streams where 10% or more of the watershed is covered by buildings and pavement.

Pluta estimated that only about 2–3% of the Miles Creek watershed, which extends beyond the Lakeside site, is covered with pavement and buildings now. With Lakeside built out, he predicted it would increase to about 9%, on the verge of the stream health threshold found by the DNR research.

“It’s a huge increase of impervious surface to the watershed of Miles Creek, which we know is a spawning source for a number of important species,” he said.

Robert Rauch, the Easton-based engineering consultant for the developer, Trappe East Holdings Business Trust, turned down interview requests and did not answer emailed questions about the project. His only response was a general emailed statement that the state had some of the most stringent environmental regulations in the nation.

“Rest assured,” he wrote, “the Lakeside phased development will be designed and constructed such that every phase will be in full compliance with the most current regulations.”

The MDE’s Currey said the Lakeside development would have to follow the state’s stormwater management regulations, which require multiple structures and practices on the site to minimize polluted runoff “to the maximum extent possible.”

Meanwhile, the first 89 homes to be built will have their sewage treated by the town’s existing treatment plant, which discharges into La Trappe Creek, another impaired Choptank tributary. The new facility won’t be ready to operate until more homes are built, the developer’s representatives have told town officials.

The existing plant has available treatment capacity, officials point out. That facility doesn’t remove nutrients nearly as well as the new plant is supposed to, though, and it was cited in 2018 for violating its nitrogen discharge limits by nearly 90%, according to federal data.

Nick Newnam, president of the five-member town council, declined to be interviewed. Lindsey Ryan, the town attorney, replied by email: “The development will strengthen the local economy, provide a better quality of life and access to resources, and build on local assets.” She also said it would increase the tax base, promote walkability and bolster local businesses.

In recent online public meetings, town officials have indicated they’ll be keeping a close eye on how the development proceeds.

Nearby residents say they will, too.

Steve Harris, a veterinarian whose home and cattle farm are just across Miles Creek from the spray fields, said he’s worried about water quality suffering if the system fails.

“I think people should be able to do what they want with their land,” Harris said. “I’m OK with that. But this affects all Marylanders [and] the Chesapeake Bay.”

By Tim Wheeler