Threatened with a fourth consecutive summer of water shortages, the Carroll County commissioners are considering a moratorium on home construction in the Eldersburg area, one of the Baltimore region's fastest-growing suburbs.
Despite a cool, rainy spring, county officials say shortages are imminent, noting water levels and the forecast of a dry summer. A building freeze would ease pressure on the public water system in South Carroll, where for the past three summers residents have been barred from watering lawns and shrubs, washing cars and filling pools.
"We're concerned that there may not be enough water to hold us over," said Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier, who faults a lack of planning. "The county was not on the ball, and now we're stuck."
For more than 30 years, Carroll has directed much of its development to its southern end. But officials have not found new water sources for the county's most populous area, home to more than 20 percent of its 152,488 residents. At least 1,000 more homes are approved for construction in South Carroll; they would not be affected by a building freeze.
Most of South Carroll relies on Liberty Reservoir for its water, but plans to expand a treatment plant and draw more water from the reservoir, which is owned by Baltimore, are stalled in negotiations. Carroll officials hoped to have a new high-yield well operating in Sykesville by Memorial Day, but the state has yet to issue permits.
The commissioners are expected to act on the proposed building freeze next week, when they return from vacation.
"Mother Nature has bought us a few weeks, but we need other water sources," said J. Michael Evans, the county's director of public works.
During the past three summers, county officials have imposed restrictions on outdoor water use for the more than 18,000 customers in South Carroll who rely on the public system. Residents in upscale homes watched thousands of dollars in trees and shrubs die.
For beleaguered residents, the moratorium cannot come too soon.
"It's something we've wanted for years for numerous reasons, and we really need it," said Charles Fairbank, an Eldersburg resident. "We've had shortages for the last three years, and it's only logical we stop building. For once, the commissioners would be doing the right thing."
The commissioners have considered moratoriums in the past as a response to residents' complaints about crowded schools, congested roads and inadequate public utilities. Attempts in the past several years have failed.
Since 1970, the population in South Carroll has tripled, to 28,000, straining water resources and sending utility bills soaring. Many customers typically pay quarterly water bills that exceed $100. Frustrated, some residents have said they will abandon the public system and will revive their private wells.
In recent months, concerns with the aging and inadequate water treatment system have forced county planners to tell builders they cannot guarantee water for new projects.
The commissioners expected a reprieve this summer and budgeted $5 million for a new well and pumping station. The project could deliver as much as 340,000 gallons a day. It is set for construction along Route 32, on property owned by Fairhaven Retirement Community.
But the state hasn't issued water appropriation and construction permits, stalling the project. The state advertised its intention to issue a permit in March.
Many county officials and residents consider the delay a political payback for Carroll's consistent defiance of the governor's Smart Growth initiative.
The commissioners drew the governor's ire last year when they voted 2-1 to rezone one of the few remaining farms in South Carroll for an upscale golf-course community.
Frazier and Donald I. Dell, the commissioners who voted for the rezoning, said their decision was made in the best interests of Carroll County. Board President Julia Walsh Gouge argued that the farmland should be preserved.
Making a rare intervention into a local zoning issue, Gov. Parris N. Glendening harshly criticized the Carroll commissioners and said their decision did not square with the state's efforts to curb suburban sprawl.
Glendening indicated that Carroll County's requests for road and school funding and for permission to drill wells in South Carroll would receive a cool reception from the state.
"It concerns me because here is a county that's been having a problem with water supply," Glendening said at the time. He noticed the county's pending application for the Fairhaven well.
Even if permits arrive soon, the earliest the well would begin operating is September, and it's only a stopgap measure.
"The well would buy us about three years of capacity, time we need to figure out the next step," Evans said. The county advertised Friday for construction bids on the Fairhaven well, a small pumping station and connector lines. Evans said he could recommend a contractor by July 1, if he has a state permit.
Plans to expand the county's Freedom Water Treatment Plant and increase by 3 million gallons the daily draw from Liberty Reservoir are also on hold. Baltimore, which owns the reservoir and the surrounding land, has made the increase contingent on Carroll's ratification of the Watershed Protection Agreement, a document that restricts development along the waterway.
The county has a long-term lease with the city for 3 million gallons a day from the reservoir. Expansion of the Liberty plant would allow Carroll to draw an additional 3 million gallons daily. The plant supplies about 6,700 homes and businesses in South Carroll.