Communities can't grow without proper watering


HOW DECEPTIVE in its simplicity is the state's "smart growth" program: encourage growth in existing communities, avoid costly sprawl of public services and facilities.

There are footnotes and exceptions, but the basic idea is that (crucial) state funding for roads and water goes only to established communities or already planned growth areas. The corollary is that local governments or individuals must pay the full cost of public amenities if they choose to build in "non-smart" areas.

But what if the existing developed area is already crowded, its streets clogged by gridlock and its water/sewer capacity strained to the limit? What if residents refuse to be crammed together? What if the best use of a parcel of land is for new homes or businesses elsewhere, in a site that lies outside the official development envelope?

That conflict arises in South Carroll, where a citizen advisory group proposes to increase density in the most populous, most crowded section of the county.

Following the state's lead, the committee's growth plan envisions a new 100-acre "Town Center" complex of housing, retail and office space in the Eldersburg area. Many objections have been raised to the plan, the result of two years of study by this committee that reports to the county Planning and Zoning Commission. The County Commissioners expressed their reservations at a briefing this month.

One problem is that water supplies are inadequate to serve such a complex and the people who would work, live and visit there.

Though it draws water from the Liberty Reservoir (owned by Baltimore City), the Freedom area has fallen under various warnings and limits on water use in recent years. Firefighters have bemoaned the lack of water pressure for their hoses. This summer's scorching weather will no doubt bring on another episode of water restrictions.

Critics also note that the roads cannot handle the added traffic of a town center. But failing roads and traffic congestion, without room to build improved thoroughfares (even if the public could pay for them), seem to be Eldersburg's curse.

Notice that opponents are not suggesting that the "town center" be built elsewhere. They are saying that the community cannot sustain the growth. It's much like Manchester cutting in half its planned population limit because of the costly demand on public infrastructure.

In Eldersburg, supporters of the town center maintain that water and roads would not be overtaxed.

Indeed, another development there may not make that much difference, given the dismal state of traffic flow. Expanded water resources may be developed to serve growth. The concentrated combination of uses may be the wisest course for the community.

Yet their question remains: How much is too much in densely developed areas?

Water supply is the great limiter. Though we live in a resonably wet, humid environment, finding bountiful, reliable water resources is not easy. You don't just point and dig, expecting water to gush forth effortlessly. Sewer pipes and treatment plants don't miraculously appear overnight. Their cost is enormous.

Ask Taneytown. It opened the Carroll County season on water restrictions a week ago. Despite higher than normal rainfall so far this year, the city's well pumps are working overtime to meet demand. They need a rest, allowing the natural aquifers to recharge, so Taneytown has banned outdoor water use, washing cars to watering lawns to filling swimming pools.

Last year, people complained that the city's overuse of water was sucking their private wells dry. They also worried about the impact on their wells of a planned 200-home subdivision.

Mount Airy is another town that knows about the value of a dependable water supply.

The town seems ready to offer free water/sewer hookup for a new middle school -- if the Frederick County Board of Education will build it. Straddling the Carroll-Frederick county line, the community has repeatedly tried to get a new secondary school for its growing student population.

Frederick school officials will decide this year on a new middle school location. Mount Airy might not be the best central location for that regional school, they note. But the school board also notes that ready, free access to a public water system is a powerfully persuasive consideration.

There's a little problem with the idea. Neighbors of the property proposed for the Mount Airy school site have signed petitions against the project.

It seems they're concerned about, among other things, the impact on their water supply.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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