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Area debates potential of more growth; New master plan will be considered starting tonight; 3,000 more houses; Crowded schools, congested roads torment residents


Twenty years ago, Carroll County officials set out to lure thousands of newcomers to the Eldersburg area by turning farmland into housing developments. They drew up a master plan for roads, schools and public utilities to accommodate expected growth.

The people, lured by low taxes, good schools and green vistas, came, doubling the population to nearly 30,000. But almost nothing in the master plan was built.

Today, nearly every school in South Carroll is surrounded by portable classrooms, and the area suffers through seasonal water shortages. The county is waiting 20 years after some subdivisions began for developers to build connector roads that would relieve traffic on the congested thoroughfares in Eldersburg.

South Carroll's one volunteer fire company -- the 1977 plan called for two -- can barely keep up with demand, and state police who serve the area from the barracks in Westminster can often be nearly a half-hour away from an emergency.

Now, a plan with many of the same grand ideas and 3,000 more houses is up for debate. A public hearing, set for 7 p.m. today at Liberty High School, promises to be as crowded as the school and the roads leading to it.

"There was no way to do what was in the old plan and no way to pay for what is in this one," said Jonathan S. Herman, mayor of Sykesville, an incorporated town of 3,500 in the planning area. "A plan is only as successful as the means to implement it. If the county were a business, it would be bankrupt."

Eldersburg cannot afford a housing boom, but as an unincorporated area with no local government, it has little voice in its future, residents said.

When South Carroll residents used crowded schools as an argument against growth, the county approved several retirement communities, whose elderly residents account for more than half the emergency calls to the Fire Department.

"We have never been successful at slowing development," said Gene Edwards, a member of Freedom Area Citizens Council, an unofficial board that acts as liaison between residents and the county. "It does not matter what is in the plan. It will benefit developers and not the community."

The plan would rezone to residential more than 1,200 acres, most of which is farmland.

"That is a tremendous additional burden on services," said Roberta Windham, council member. "There is no plan for a new elementary school for at least 12 years. The new kids will be in high school by then."

Eldersburg would need at least another elementary, costing $8 million, and another middle school -- $13 million. Neither school is planned.

Water shortages have reached critical stages in drought conditions. The area relies on Liberty Reservoir, owned by Baltimore City, for its water. The county is allotted 3 million gallons a day and filters the water at a 30-year-old treatment plant that serves about 6,500 households in Eldersburg.

In the 1997 drought, demand frequently exceeded that capacity and stressed equipment. Carroll imposed a mandatory ban on outdoor use and threatened to shut off water to those who violated the ban. Public works had inspectors checking daily.

George Horvath, a longtime resident, said the plan creates "more places for developers to build," he said. "It will be more people and more congestion. If they had followed the '77 plan and built the roads, we would not be in this predicament."

The 21 connector roads would cost the county more than $20 million to build today. The old plan had no estimate. A 1997 transportation study predicted most intersections along Liberty Road in Eldersburg would fail within the next few years unless major improvements are made. The intersection at Routes 26 and 32 -- the heart of Eldersburg -- is the county's worst for accidents and delays. At rush hour, when 80 percent of the area is commuting outside the county, motorists often wait through two signals before they can proceed.

Phil Bennett, chairman of the citizens council, will place 16 pages of the council's reasons for opposing the plan on the record. But he is not optimistic.

"When we work with county government, it seems they don't listen to us," Bennett said. "We are opposed to rezoning land for homes and concerned about the impact of new residents on public facilities. Much of the plan was written with the expectation of money that is not forthcoming."

Both old and new plans "lack backbone," Windham said. "Implementation is lacking or nonexistent. You have to make development pay for itself, something it has not done here."

Carroll officials organized two information sessions to explain the new plan. Both drew unexpectedly large crowds, totaling more than 350 who questioned, opined and complained, most often about roads. Most have said they will return tonight to a hearing before the Carroll County Planning Commission, which will review all comments and make recommendations to the county commissioners, the final arbiters of the plan.

"I have concerns with increasing density in South Carroll," said Commissioner Donald I. Dell, who also serves on the planning commission. "There must be some justification, but it will have to be a really strong reason for me to approve this plan."

Additional homes could cover the costs of supplying water to the area, Dell said.

That is faulty reasoning, said Herman. At a recent meeting with the commissioners, Herman suggested the board take a course in magic -- "that's the only way to pay for this plan," he said.

Pub Date: 1/07/99

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