Eroding Cliffs Endanger Calvert County Homes, Septic Systems


The cliffs are composed of layers of sand, clay and prehistoric fossils. Some parts of the cliffs are sandier than others, and they have the highest erosion rates. (Photo: Laura L. Thornton)
The cliffs are composed of layers of sand, clay and prehistoric fossils. Some parts of the cliffs are sandier than others, and they have the highest erosion rates. Click image for larger rendition. (Photo: Laura L. Thornton)

LUSBY, Md. (December 15, 2010) — When Phyllis Bonfield and Marcia Seifert bought their Calvert Cliffs home six years ago, they were looking forward to a peaceful retirement in a quiet Chesapeake Bay community.

What they got instead was a succession of erosion-related dramas: the loss of more than 30 feet from their backyard at the edge of the cliff, a three-year battle with government agencies for permission to build a breakwater to control the erosion, and a major septic system failure that flooded the first floor of their 2,000-square-foot home with raw sewage.

"We've both worked a lot of years to be able to have this little piece of heaven, and so it's been stressful," Bonfield, 68, says.

"It's not what we had hoped for."

Bonfield's and Seifert's home is one of 234 Calvert County houses standing within 100 feet of the county's cliffs, which are eroding at an average rate of up to two feet a year, according to state and county officials. Not one of those houses is connected to a public sewer line.

And with many of them more than 20 years old, the potential exists for under-maintained backyard septic systems to erode into the Chesapeake Bay. An individual septic system consists of an underground tank—with a 1,500-gallon capacity for a three-bedroom house—and retention chambers in which solid sewage settles. Liquids drain out of the tank into a septic drain field, an underground system of perforated pipes surrounded by gravel. Septic tanks should be cleaned out every two years and replaced every 20 years, says Paul McFaden, Maryland's director of environmental health. But Bonfield's and Seifert's original septic system didn't even last that long. Their "little piece of heaven" is a small, pie-shaped lot perched 70 feet above the Chesapeake near the southern-most tip of Calvert County.

At the narrower end of the lot, near the road, is the house. It was built in 1986, Bonfield says, three years before the county enacted the Critical Area Program limiting development of land within 1,000 feet of the cliffs.

At the wider end of the lot is the edge of an eroding cliff rising out of the bay. When Bonfield and Seifert, 74, first purchased the house, 53 feet stood between it and the cliff edge. Now, that distance is only about 20 feet, Bonfield says.

And with the original septic drain field for the house's septic system designed to run under the backyard, the loss of land due to erosion posed a lurking but silent problem—until July 2004, when a giant sinkhole, 20 feet wide and 30 feet deep, developed in the backyard where the drain field was.

At first, it was something of a mystery.

A coastal engineer from Florida prescribed filling in the sinkhole with layers of straw, sand and dirt. He didn't pin the problem to a failing septic system, and in any case, the bad smell usually associated with septic system problems wasn't there, Bonfield says.

But the backyard kept sinking.

When Bonfield and Seifert contacted the state's environmental health department, McFaden gave the property a correct diagnosis - a failed septic system with an overworked drain field.

With the loss of so much backyard land to erosion, what was left couldn't absorb what was filtering out of the septic tank - "it was too heavy for the land," Bonfield says.

With not enough backyard left for a proper drain field, they built a deep sewer pit in the front yard. The pit failed after a few years, flooding the first floor of the home with sewage. A second sewer pit was dug—this time below the driveway. The pits retain solid sewage, while liquids flow into a ravine running alongside the property, and from there, into the Chesapeake Bay. The two-pit system seems to be working, Bonfield says.

Altogether, Bonfield and Seifert sunk about $27,000 into the sinkhole—$10,000 for each sewer pit in the front yard, and $6,000—$8,000 for the coastal engineer from Florida.

For a septic system to make it over 20 years "would be rare," McFaden says, "and if it's lasted that long, we'd be looking."

"That would throw up a red flag," he says. "We're not going to play games with it."

Still, septic systems aren't inspected on a regular basis—only when a homeowner calls in to the Department of Environmental Health to report a septic system problem, or when a property changes hands.

Yearly inspections would be "impossible—you couldn't have the money in the budget if you tried," McFaden says.

Calvert County's commissioners declined to comment on the issue.

But "the reality is, in some cases, the septic systems were allowed (years ago) to be installed (between) the house—and the cliff," says real estate broker Chris McNelis of The McNelis Group, which handles real estate listings and sales in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties.

Many of the lots along Calvert County's cliffs were surveyed in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, "before any zoning restrictions were set in place," says Gregory Bowen, director of the county's planning and zoning department. The lots are very small—one-fourth or one-third of an acre, McNelis says—so that when a house, driveway and septic system are "squeezed to fit ... on the lot, it (leaves room for) very few remedies."

"It's the planning of it years ago that certainly ... led to the demise of (some) of these properties on the cliffs," she says. "If you disturb that soil, within 100 feet of a cliff, over time ... it could create a lasting impact."

Standing just a little way up the cliff from Bonfield's and Seifert's home, the home of David Ector and Lidia Cucurull-Ector is perilously perched on the cliff. After a storm earlier this fall dumped 13 inches of rain on the property in less than a day, huge chunks of their property started falling into the bay.

Their back deck is now only eight feet from the edge of the cliff, and has been condemned by the county.

"The septic system is close to the edge," says Ector. "It's on the cliff side of the house, so it doesn't take a lot more erosion for that septic to be close to going into the bay."

"It's a bad thing."

Ector and Cucurull-Ector, both of whom work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, would like to repair their portion of the cliff and stabilize their home, but they have been stalled by the permitting process, which requires input from the county Planning and Zoning Department, the state's departments of the Environment and Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"It feels like a bureaucratic mess," Ector says. "So many agencies get involved and they're not very well coordinated."

The major barrier, Ector says, is a tiny insect called the Puritan tiger beetle, an endangered species in Maryland, which needs naturally eroding cliffs to reproduce, says C. Barry Knisley, professor emeritus of biology at Randolph Macon College, and the leading expert on the tiny bug.

Puritan tiger beetles spend most of their lives at the edge of the water, but females go up to the sandy cliffs to lay their eggs. "The adults are only going to select areas to lay their eggs that have a high sand content," Knisley says. The larvae thrive in the sandy environment.

If the cliffs are vegetated, the beetles won't go there, and so they won't reproduce.

But one of the few ways to slow the erosion is to vegetate the cliffs. Plant roots help keep sandy soil in place.

When Ector and Cucurull-Ector bought their 2,000-square-foot, 1960s-era home two and a half years ago, there was no easement against the property for a Puritan tiger beetle habitat on the cliffs, Ector says. The Ectors have been stymied trying to secure a permit to build a stone breakwater or revetment along the shore to slow the erosion, or to vegetate the cliff. So far, they haven't been able to secure a permit to do anything, and their backyard remains cordoned off by bright orange plastic police netting. And for now, the home's septic drain system lies just outside the netting.

When Bonfield, a retired public relations officer for a nonprofit organization, and Seifert, a retired history teacher, moved to Calvert County from Pennsylvania, they consulted with a county geologist about erosion on their property. They were told the cliffs were eroding at a rate of 12 to 18 inches a year, without stabilization. The rate has turned out to be more like 5 feet a year. "A tree goes down and you lose 10 feet," Bonfield says. "You don't lose 12 inches."

After nearly three years of wrangling with government agencies, Bonfield and Seifert were able to secure a permit to build a breakwater - a five-foot-tall, 26-foot-wide, 165-foot-long engineer-designed, $75,000 pile of granite rocks near the shore of the narrow strip of beach at the foot of their cliff. Bonfield and Seifert financed it all themselves.

Completed three and a half years ago, the breakwater has helped slow the erosion, but has not stopped it.

Fortunately, their septic system is now in the front yard. But some of the older houses' septic drain fields may be about to ooze out into the bay. In the meantime, to keep septic systems healthy, McFaden recommends pumping septic tanks out every two years, and not using the garbage disposal, which creates suspended solids that don't settle easily in a tank's retention chambers.

And don't use too much water, McFaden adds. "Being conservative with water usage is a big thing."

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