When the Bay Bridge opened in 1952, developers raced across to the Eastern Shore to build dreams. Real estate agents sold vacation homes, family getaways, retirement retreats and quaint cottages so close to the water it was practically in their backyards. On Kent Island, Maryland’s oldest settlement in one of its least populated counties, builders needed no permits, no inspections, no site plans. They built many homes on small lots, and the homes quickly sold.

But many of those homes on southern Kent Island along narrow Route 8 were built on septic systems that soon failed, posing health hazards for the community and polluting the Chesapeake Bay. The problem kept getting worse with each new home until the 1980s, when environmental health director John Nickerson imposed a building ban, leaving hundreds of vacant lots in limbo. That set Kent Island up for a Hobbesian choice: endure the pollution, hassle and falling real-estate prices associated with the failing tanks; or extend a sewer line and open the low-lying island to hundreds of new homes, worsening traffic and other concerns.

For years, island residents and county officials remained deadlocked. Adding to their indecision was the steep costs of the sewer project, which neither the homeowners nor the county were able or willing to shoulder.

In August, the impasse was finally broken. By a narrow 3-2 vote, the Queen Anne’s County Commissioners approved the sewer project, a version of which had first been proposed in 1978. The Maryland Department of the Environment announced the state would help fund the $50 million sewer line, though homeowners will still have to pay about $100 a month when they are hooked into the system, officials say. The county opened an office and is beginning the work, which will continue until 2023 to hook in all the communities.

The move will solve a vexing problem for some of the first developments on Kent Island after the Bay Bridge was built. In some cases, Nickerson said, those early septic systems never worked properly; in others, they failed over time.

In a functioning septic system, a buried tank holds the solids, and liquid waste seeps out into a subsurface “drain field” via a network of perforated pipes.  The wastewater then oozes through the soil, which naturally removes harmful coliform bacteria, viruses and some, but not all, the nutrients that can cause algae blooms in surface water.

But on southern Kent Island, the water table is so close to the surface and the soils drain so slowly that wet weather floods the septic system. Wastewater often backs up into yards and finds its way into ditches and, in some cases, directly into the Chesapeake.

Dick Sells, longtime president of the Kent Island Estates community association, said the septic problem had loomed since the 1970s but had become more acute in the early 2000s. In the wet season, Sells, said, some residents could not use their toilets. Yards and ditches were filled with effluent. County officials said that, on rainy days, pump-out trucks drive back and forth on Route 8 all day long.

“The community is not a cesspool by any means, but you can go in the wet season and you can see and smell effluent. You just have to keep your kids out of it,” Sells said.

When Nickerson became environmental health director in the 1980s, he refused to permit any more lots for homes if they could not pass a test to see if the land could handle them.

The decision, Nickerson said, was to safeguard what was then one of the largest shellfish economies in the country, with more than two dozen shucking houses and a large waterman community. The state was monitoring those waters. If septic pollution entered and contaminated those shellfish, Nickerson said, hundreds of workers would lose their jobs.

Nickerson’s decision froze building on close to 300 lots that real estate agents had sold, bankers had lent mortgages on, and families had bought hoping to pass on to their children. About 1,300 more vacant lots were rendered virtually unbuildable by the inability to get permits for installing septic systems.

Sells said that, between 1999 and 2009, homes in Kent Island Estates lost a quarter of their value. Residents could not renovate bathrooms or add more, because they had no room for either a new holding tank or drain field to accommodate the additional waste.

Connecting 1,518 existing homes to a county wastewater treatment plant might halt the pollution and health risks, but it creates another problem for Kent Island, where, as county commissioner Jim Moran quips, “we’re not Democrats and Republicans. We’re ‘growth’ and ‘no growth.’”

Hundreds of the lots left undeveloped by Nickerson’s moratorium have since been consolidated or deemed unsuitable for houses because the lots are too small or cannot hold a septic system. But by laying a sewer line down Route 8, more than 500 now-vacant lots will be able to hook into the system, so they become buildable. A state attorney general’s opinion said that the county could not deny owners access to the sewer if it passed by their property.

Thus the politicians and their dilemma: Approve the project and accept more growth, or find another solution that wouldn’t force more lots into development.

Slow-growth proponents argued for replacing failing septic systems with high-tech, less polluting ones, or building “pocket” treatment plants that would handle waste from just Kent Island Estates and Romancoke, the two residential subdivisions with the most problems. Nickerson and other county officials rejected the alternatives. They insisted no septic system, however sophisticated, would work with the island’s high water table. And they argued that building one or more small treatment plants to serve clusters of homes would be costly, difficult to maintain and run well, and would not address future septic problems in other communities along Route 8.

Jay Falstad, executive director of the Queen Anne’s Conservation Association, said he never disputed the need for a solution to failing septics in the two main island communities. But, he contended, the county’s vote to approve the project has more to do with making land speculators whole.

“They want the county and the state to subsidize their investment, or rather secure it,” Falstad said. “What sense does it make to sell thousands more houses on a sinking island? You might as well be selling tickets to the Titanic.”

Falstad and other slow- or no-growth advocates worry about adding houses to an already crowded island. Their immediate concerns include traffic and the ability of ambulances and fire trucks to access homes - particularly on summer weekends, when traffic clogs the island’s narrow roads, and getting to the Bay Bridge is nearly impossible. Long-term worries include sea-level rise, loss of wetlands, increasing polluted runoff and flooding from more pavement and buildings.  Also, they warn of further change in the island’s character from a quiet seaside retreat into a suburb similar to Glen Burnie – one already derided by some as “Kent Burnie.” Falstad in particular worries that the sewer line could open the door to more commercial development along the corridor.

Some sewer opponents have even accused Nickerson and sewer proponents of fear-mongering, noting that there have been no confirmed illnesses linked to septic pollution.

“You can’t show me one case of cholera or one case of disease that is affiliated with human waste,” said commissioner Robert Buckey, one of the two who voted against the sewer line.

Buckey said he voted against the project because he was elected on an anti-sewer platform, and felt he had to keep his word. Buckey said he’s also worried about cost; hookup fees paid by builders to develop the vacant lots will help subsidize the connection costs for existing homes as they hook into the sewer line, but county officials aren’t sure yet just how many vacant lots will be buildable.

In the end, it took four separate commissions to get to a vote for the project. This five-member body only approved it after one commissioner, Mark Anderson, who had campaigned against the sewer line, switched his vote.

After years of claiming inability to help, the state provided the decisive boost for the sewer project by pledging to cover the lion’s share of its steep costs.  Maryland’s Smart Growth law, intended to limit rural sprawl, only allows the state to pay for infrastructure in designated growth areas – and Route 8 is not one of those.  But three years ago, state lawmakers voted to expand the ways in which the state’s so-called “flush” fee revenue could be spent. Previously, the Bay Restoration Fund, as it’s formally known, could only go toward upgrading the state’s wastewater treatment plants. Now, its funds can help communities on septic hook into sewer lines.

Last year, a new, larger wastewater treatment plant was built in Greensboro that will eventually hook up more than 100 homes in a nearby town, Goldsboro, where leaking waste from the failing septic systems has contaminated a one-time campground lake. 

The Maryland Department of the Environment under Gov. Larry Hogan is seeking to do more such projects. In August, Hogan announced a rollback of requirements for less polluting septic systems outside of waterfront areas. Department officials have said they would rather spend their limited resources on addressing individual failing septic systems and hooking communities like Kent Island Estates into public sewer.

"It makes sense to stop the harm from failing septics and rethink the opportunities for broader solutions, including sewers and treatment systems," MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles said in a statement hailing the Kent Island project.

The first communities to hook up to the new system will be Kent Island Estates and Romancoke on the Bay. Design work has been completed and county engineers expect construction to begin this fall and last until 2023. The new system will hold the solids in a tank on each home’s property, and pump the liquid waste to a 16-inch pipe that will take it nine miles to the county wastewater treatment plant in Stevensville. The engineers then will focus on hooking up seven other corridor communities: Tower Gardens, Queen Anne’s Colony, Kentmoor, Chesapeake Estates, Sunny Isle of Kent, Matapeake Estates and Normans.

After 43 years with the health department, Nickerson has at last seen one of his first priorities come to fruition. It hasn’t been an easy road. Some of those lots, he said, belonged to state delegates and influential investors. People threatened to sue him, he said, and wrote to then-governor William Donald Schaefer asking that he be fired. But in the end, Nickerson said, “I knew I was right.”