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Scuba business looking to stay afloat amid quarry drainage plans

As Carroll County and the City of Westminster prepare to drain 30 feet of water from Hyde's Quarry to test whether the water supply could support future development, their actions could unintentionally sink one local business.

The Maryland Department of the Environment is in the process of reviewing the city's and county's plan to test if the Westminster limestone quarry turned freshwater lake can be used as a water supply area. The county spent $1.2 million to purchase the 60-acre property in June 2007 with the planned purpose of using it for water supply for future development.

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If the MDE approve permits for the work, Tom Devilbiss, deputy director of the county's Department of Land Use, Planning and Development, said it will take the city and county 30 days to lower the lake 30 feet and another 60 to 90 days to test the lake's water recharge ability. The plan is to start testing water recharge and quality beginning in August, he said.

But for Laird Brown, owner of Undersea Outfitters, a local scuba supply and training business, the project could mean the end of his diving days in Hyde's Quarry.

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Undersea Outfitters has been using the quarry as a training ground for divers since 2001 and has held a lease with the county to use the quarry since 2007.

Every weekend from April through November, Brown, recreational scuba divers and students are in the water swimming through the underwater playground Brown has built, which includes a school bus, Jeep and airplane.

Brown said he's populated the quarry with fish, mows the grass, maintains the property and holds the key to the gate, but he's been told when the project begins and his lease expires — July 31 — he'll no longer be able to bring divers up to the quarry.

"I'll be here as long as I can keep going, but the prospects aren't good," Brown said of his business' future if the county doesn't change course.

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Staff from the county's Department of Land Use, Planning and Development briefed the board of commissioners about the project June 26. While the 26-minute briefing contained information about the project's history, a timeline of work and goals, staff failed to mention that Undersea Outfitters leases the property or that scuba divers regularly use the fresh water lake for training.

Brown was informed earlier this year that he may not be able to use the quarry, but said he was not given a definitive answer until July 1.

Since then, Brown has asked all of his divers to contact the county commissioners office about this and they've responded.

Three weeks after the staff's initial briefing on the project, Commissioner Haven Shoemaker, R-District 2, told the Times that his email inbox has been inundated with messages from scuba divers worried that testing at Hyde's Quarry will mean no place for them to dive.

"I didn't know we had so many scuba divers in Carroll County, but apparently we do," Shoemaker said. "I'd like to get more information about the impact on them and what can be done to mitigate the damage to the scuba diving world, which evidently has some economic effect on the county. I'm curious as to how that is all going to shake out."

Shoemaker said he's going to get the issue on the agenda for next week. At the time, Shoemaker said he hopes that he and the board will get information on how water testing will affect the scuba diving community.

Undersea Outfitters, previously located in Finksburg and Sykesville, now resides on John Street in Westminster.

While the scuba shop is open Monday through Saturday, divers are in Hyde's Quarry every weekend and occasionally on weekdays, Brown said.

Brown, who bought into the business as a partner in 2007, is now the sole owner and operates Undersea Outfitters with the help of six to eight unpaid volunteers.

Brown said he holds a $10,000-a-year insurance policy on his diving operation at the quarry, which is the primary reason he believes he should be able to keep diving.

"I will not put any of my divers in harm's way whatsoever," Brown said.

Brown has proposed building a temporary structure to block off the area where the city will be pumping water, but has yet to hear back whether that will be considered. He has been diving since 1968, including 20 years he served in the U.S. Navy.

Westminster has hired Advanced Land and Water in Sykesville to perform the work and the county is expected to spend $50,000 to run electrical lines to the site, Devilbiss said. After the testing is complete, the town will have to apply for an MDE permit before it can pump any water out of the site.

At that point, Devilbiss said it will be up to the county to decide if Undersea Outfitters will be allowed to continue using the quarry for diving.

Hyde's Quarry is the only freshwater dive facility in Maryland, Brown said. The next closest freshwater diving location is in Bainbridge, Pennsylvania, about 60 miles away.

The quarry has been turned into a 162-million-gallon lake covering approximately 8 acres, Devilbiss said. The deepest portion of the freshwater lake is 60 feet.

Devilbiss told the board of commissioners in June that the property was first considered as a site for water supply in 1965. Though it had been considered for use as water supply for New Windsor, the plans never came into fruition.

Then, in 1989, the City of Westminster expressed interest in using the quarry for water supply. Testing indicated that the lake could refill itself with ground water and precipitation at a rate of 300,000 gallons a day.

"Even though this is a big lake, it's actually a big well in the ground," Devilbiss told the commissioners June 26.

Working with the city, the county acquired the property in 2007. Devilbiss said the county did not perform water quality and production testing in the lake because, at the time, the state wanted the county to completely drain the lake. Devilbiss said the requirement was "onerous."

"That was not something we as staff or the county in general felt was even necessary or appropriate," Devilbiss said. "We did not want to create problems that were not there, i.e. sinkholes."

But, in 2013, the state changed the rules as the county didn't have to completely drain the lake to perform testing, Devilbiss said.

If the tests are positive and the MDE permits using the facility for water supply, Devilbiss said the county and city will have to negotiate how the water and property will be used in the future.

While he is concerned about the future of his business, Brown pointed out that he won't be the only local business affected by this.

Just this past weekend, a group of 40 divers visited the quarry, includimg a group from Alexandria, Virginia.

Since their training was a two-day exercise, the group stayed overnight at the Boston Inn, Brown said.

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"This [closing] will have an economic impact on this whole area," he said.

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Reach staff writer Christian Alexandersen at 410-857-7873 or christian.alexandersen@carrollcountytimes.com.

Reach staff writer Blair Ames at 410-412-4880 or email blair.ames@carrollcountytimes.com.

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