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Planned Bel Air reservoir at Mt. Soma at least three years from completion

A revised rendering of the planned 124-million gallon reservoir on the Mt. Soma property looking west from Bel Air toward Fallston. Route 1 is on the left, the Bel Air Bypass on the Right. Winters Run, which will supply the reservoir, is in the foreground. **Usable by LA and DC Only**
A revised rendering of the planned 124-million gallon reservoir on the Mt. Soma property looking west from Bel Air toward Fallston. Route 1 is on the left, the Bel Air Bypass on the Right. Winters Run, which will supply the reservoir, is in the foreground. **Usable by LA and DC Only** (Maryland American Water / Provided graphic)

It will be at least three years before a reservoir will be completed to relieve the Bel Air area's chronic water supply concerns, a delay that could hinder – at least temporarily – any major development projects planned in the county seat or on its outskirts.

The 90 million gallon reservoir, an impoundment of Winters Run on a 68-acre site west of town called Mt. Soma, is expected to be completed around mid-2019, according to a recent update provided to town and county officials by representatives of Maryland American Water Company, which supplies water to Bel Air and parts of Fallston and Forest Hill.

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Though top Harford County officials say they aren't overly concerned about the timetable, Bel Air's public works director says that unless the Maryland Department of the Environment relaxes constraints it placed on new construction in Bel Air in 2013 until a more reliable water supply was found, large potential development projects in the Maryland American service area may not be able to go forward immediately.

"At this time, things are not being held up for small projects like single family homes and restaurants," Stephen Kline, the town DPW director, explained. "If you are interested in building a large project requiring multiple [equivalent development units], for example a condominium project with many units, Maryland American Water is not able to provide adequate water during severe drought conditions until the impoundment is complete."

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The three-year completion timetable for the reservoir raised concerns during a recent meeting of the community advisory group monitoring the $20 million project, Samantha Villegas, director of external affairs of Maryland American Water, acknowledged in an emailed summary.

"Some concern was expressed at the length of time before new development could resume in the town," wrote Villegas, who attended the April 25 meeting, as did Maryland American's president Barry Suits and other company staff working on the project. "Members shared a number of examples of businesses and properties that were either delayed or stopped due to the lack of available water supply for new development."

"The group asked whether it was possible for MDE to enable new development before construction was completed, perhaps when construction [of the reservoir] began. Maryland American Water staff agreed to work with MDE and all local stakeholders on a possible solution," she added.

Bel Air officials have been anxious about the project, following the year-long pause they agreed to at MDE's insistence in late 2013, out of concern about having enough water supply in a major drought. Maryland American has a storage tank in downtown Bel Air, but little additional storage capacity at its treatment plant off of Route 1 where it crosses Winters Run, just west of town.

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The building pause was lifted in late 2014 after the town, county and Maryland American reached an agreement for the county to sell additional water to the company until a permanent supply solution was in place, with the reservoir becoming the preferred alternative. But limits were placed on how much building would be allowed in the interim.

According to minutes of the community advisory board meeting furnished by Kline, only 92 equivalent dwelling units are available.

At a Board of Town Commissioners and staff retreat held at Rockfield Manor in early March, there were discussions about potential redevelopment projects within town, as well as about the prospects of annexing undeveloped properties that border the town, such as the Bel Air Auto Auction site, due to be vacated next year when the auction moves to Riverside, and the Boyer property east of Moores Mill Road.

Such plans, they noted at the time, are contingent on the reservoir, designed to hold a 100-day supply, being completed.

County officials, who have waived a requirement that the reservoir project be reviewed by the Development Advisory Committee to help speed up the approval process, however, have no such reservations.

With Maryland American well along in securing the necessary state permits, county Director of Administration Billy Boniface said he believes MDE will not halt any major development projects that might arise in the interim, especially given the lead time that would be involved in getting any new developments approved.

"We believe MDE will work with us because Maryland American is making a good faith effort" to get the reservoir built, he said in a recent interview.

Despite vocal opposition from preservationists, nearby residents and members of the prominent Amoss family whose ancestors settled Mt. Soma in the early 1700s, the county sold the property, which it had acquired for future parkland in 1996, to Maryland American last fall for $549,000.

Planning and design for the reservoir is proceeding, Maryland American's Villegas said. As of April's advisory group meeting, however, the design was only 30 percent complete.

Several design changes were incorporated at the advisory group's request, she said, including relocating the access drive to the reservoir to protect the foundation of the old barn on the site, a historic building for which the county retains an easement and has pledged to restore.

Another change was to relocate the reservoir farther west, to comply with county Natural Resource District requirements. The new location is at a higher elevation, away from Winters Run. The height of the reservoir walls will be 50 feet. The top elevation of the structure will be 260 feet, according to the advisory board minutes.

The impoundment will be built to withstand the Probable Maximum Flood, which is the 10,000-year storm, she said.¿

"Two features that were pointed out on the new rendering were an 8-foot foot fence around the structure for security and a black-top road around the top for maintenance," Villegas said.

The reservoir site won't be open to the public. Despite pleas from some of those who opposed the sale that some sort of trail system be developed to link the apartment complex being built on the west side of the Mt. Soma site with the Ma & Pa Trail network north of the Bel Air Bypass, the county and Maryland American agreed, for security reasons, public access would not be allowed.

According to the latest project schedule, Maryland American will focus on finalizing the design documents for the citizens advisory group and ramp up community outreach efforts through September.

"It was noted that the Maryland Department of the Environment is facilitating an efficient process by accepting all permits together, and holding one comment period for all permits at same time as the document review period," Villegas said.

"The schedule stated that final plans would be submitted to MDE by third quarter this year; construction contractor selection would happen in second quarter of 2017; public comment period will likely occur from first to third quarter of 2017; the final permits and construction would begin in third quarter of 2017 and construction would be completed by second quarter of 2019."

By then, the greater Bel Air area should have enough capacity to ease any concerns about water and its impact on development, she said.

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This is an updated version containing a correction about the volume of water that will be impounded.

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