A watershed moment for Harford [Editorial]

Dull though the subject matter may be, it would be hard to overstate the potential impact on Harford County of a consolidated, countywide water and sewer system.

Running a municipal water system that meets the demands of large swaths of the populace, and then dealing with the wastewater that goes down the drain, are among the least flashy aspects of government. As a result, unless there's a problem — like the recent one in West Virginia — resulting in large numbers of people being without clean water, or instances where raw sewage fouls a public waterway, municipal water and sewer issues are not the stuff of commonplace political conversation.

These days in Harford County, however, the issue of water and sewer service is one worthy of discussion at coffee counters, dinner tables and any number of social gatherings. The reason is simple: The management of public water and sewer service essentially dictates land development policy, and land development policy is what determines how the community will look 10, 20, 30 or more years in the future. That's because it is relatively easy to develop at fairly high densities land that has access to water and sewer service, compared to land that will end up depending on wells and septic systems.

As of the end of February, the governments of Aberdeen, Bel Air, Havre de Grace and Harford County had all agreed to pay for a detailed study of what it would take to consolidate the management of the various water and sewer systems into a single organization.

At present, it's convoluted, and, to a degree, adversarial.

Aberdeen and Havre de Grace each have their own water treatment plants, and their own wastewater treatment plants. Similarly, Harford County has its own water and sewer plants. The county's system is also linked into the water operation that supplies Baltimore City and parts of other Baltimore metro counties. Bel Air contracts with the county to have its sewage treated, an arrangement that results in rate adjustments for town residents every two or three years. The county seat's water is provided by a private company, Maryland American, which is part of a national firm. The three municipal systems are physically able to draw water from the county system, and vice versa, and sometimes water is exchanged among them. Also, Aberdeen has excess sewage treatment capacity, but a limited water supply; Havre de Grace has more than enough water, but limited sewage treatment capacity. That's the convoluted part.

The adversarial part relates to land development policy as it has evolved over the past 15 or so years. The county has, with a measure of success, tried to confine development to the areas along Route 40 east of I-95, and on either side of Route 24 from I-95 north to the Bel Air area. Aberdeen and Havre de Grace have extended water and sewer service to areas that, for a variety of reasons, haven't been part of the county's designated development area, resulting in some areas being built that seem out of place relative to their surroundings.

Though the details will be outlined by the study all have signed on for, the general consolidation of water production capacity and sewage treatment capacity is likely to mean plenty of both will be uniformly available to fuel future development.

The key question then becomes: Who will be responsible for managing where that future development goes?

If Aberdeen and Havre de Grace end up being freed from the physical restraints of actually having to provide water and sewer service to newly-developed areas, Aberdeen's incursions to the western side of I-95 could be replicated to the extreme, possibly resulting in the greater Churchville area looking a lot like the greater Abingdon area.

If the county government holds sway over water and sewer service expansion policy, Aberdeen and Havre de Grace could see potentially reasonable development proposals killed off.

Then there's the issue of the consolidated water and sewer authority becoming the arbiter of future development policy. As envisioned to date, the authority would be an independent government agency run by a board whose members are appointed, proportionately, by the elected government officials of the three towns, plus the county.

It is clear this appointed board will be responsible for setting and collecting water and sewer fees, but will it also have authority over where new water and sewer lines are built? If it is entrusted with such authority, it will essentially control where new development goes, regardless of land use policies set by the county and towns.

The matter of how much public control there will be over the allocation of water and sewer service in Harford County is one that deserves a lively public discussion, even as the subject matter doesn't seem so lively. With no public input, however, there's a very good chance people in Harford County 20 or so years from now will have a community that's vastly different from what they had wanted.

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