A Maryland mobile home park operator whose wastewater discharge is causing problems for a farmer downstream violated local zoning laws by building his sewage treatment facility too close to the stream, an appeals board has ruled. It’s not clear, though, what the remedy is — or if there is to be one at all.

The Caroline County Board of Zoning Appeals has upheld a local official’s ruling that Frank Prettyman built the wastewater treatment plant for Prettyman Manor in the wrong location. (Rona Kobell)

The Caroline County Board of Zoning Appeals has upheld a local official’s ruling that Frank Prettyman built the wastewater treatment plant for Prettyman Manor in the wrong location.

But the unanimous decision doesn’t get the Eastern Shore county any closer to declaring what to do about the problem created in 2016 when Prettyman constructed the treatment plant by Little Creek, a tributary to the Choptank River. The spot is about 160 feet closer to the water than he’d proposed to build in an application approved by the county. And, it’s in a waterfront area where such facilities are barred under the state’s Critical Area law.

Katheleen Freeman, the director of Caroline County’s Department of Planning and Codes, issued a notice of violation to Prettyman in November last year. The notice “ordered and directed” Prettyman to relocate the plant to the location where it was originally approved, farther back from the creek. The notice also cited Prettyman for failing to develop and submit a required buffer management plan or a certificate of occupancy, and for disturbing more land than originally proposed in the waterfront strip known as the Critical Area.

Freeman also noted that she believed that Prettyman put the plant where he did so he could accommodate more mobile homes in his park. On her visit, she found hookups for a few dozen more homes in the spot where the plant should have gone. She said the county would not approve any new mobile homes there until Prettyman moved the plant to its originally approved location.

But in an email interview after the board’s decision, Freeman acknowledged the county had not pursued forcing Prettyman to move the plant. Doing so, she said, would harm the mobile home residents, because Prettyman would likely pass the relocation costs on to them. If the residents’ waste had to be hauled away by truck for treatment elsewhere while the plant was being moved, Freeman wrote, each resident might have to pay about $506 monthly. County attorneys declined to answer questions about how they would enforce the decision.

The sewage discharge is causing difficulty for Mildred Quidas, a Preston farmer downstream from Prettyman. Quidas rents her farmland to a vegetable grower who uses water from Little Creek to irrigate the crops. Quidas said her farmer lost a buyer for his cucumbers, who refused to purchase any crops that had been irrigated with water containing treated sewage effluent.  Quidas’ farmer had to switch to a different customer and grow potatoes, which fetch less money.

Moving the plant to the approved location would provide a small buffer against raw sewage entering the creek in the event of a spill. But Quidas and her daughter, Arlene Stevens, would like Prettyman to revert to the previous arrangement, where instead of discharging to Little Creek, he was hauling sewage from his community’s failing septic system to a wastewater treatment plant in Hurlock.

Arlene Stevens picks potatoes on the Caroline County farm where she grew up. Her mother rents the land to farmers, but they were forced to switch crops after a customer refused to buy produce from fields upstream of a wastewater discharge. (Rona Kobell)Prettyman built the plant because his septic system for the mobile home park had been failing for close to a decade; in 2012, the Maryland Department of the Environment entered into a consent order with him that required him to haul away the sewage waste.

The MDE approved the plant and required it to meet stringent limits on nutrients in the discharge. But the state agency says it has nothing to do with the plant being built in a different location than the one approved, and that after some initial exceedances, Prettyman Manor is meeting its permit limits now.

Quidas’ attorneys, Phil Hoon and David Blitzer, have appealed the state’s decision to issue a discharge permit to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, the state’s second highest level of judicial review. That case is pending.

In a letter to the county, the state Critical Area Commission stated that the plant’s location violates the 1984 law regulating development along the Bay and its tributaries. The location originally proposed by Prettyman’s engineers, which was farther back from the creek, would not have been a violation.

Freeman said she didn’t realize the plant was being constructed in the wrong location because she believed the MDE would ensure it was built according to plan. By the time she did inspect the site, she said, the facility had been completed.

Prettyman referred calls to his lawyer, who did not return calls.

Freeman said she’s still unsure what will happen, and will be working with the Critical Area Commission to resolve the matter.

But John Koontz, a retired environmental inspector for Prince George’s County who investigated the Prettyman case for the Quidas family, said he finds it odd that the county didn’t check more closely on the construction, considering Prettyman’s history of violations.

“Why didn’t anyone from the county check?” he asked. “That is a reasonable question that we put forth a year ago.”