Noting critical water shortages, planners are urging a ban on home construction in South Carroll that would all but end a building boom that has tripled Eldersburg's population in the past 25 years.
The recommendation occurs a week after Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier floated the same possibility, noting predictions for a dry summer and a beleaguered public water system. County efforts to obtain permits to build more wells and to tap more water from Liberty Reservoir, the primary source for most of the 30,000 residents of South Carroll, have failed.
The county should not accept plans for new subdivisions "until the commissioners decide a long-term strategy or get short-term relief" from water problems that have beset South Carroll for nearly five years, said Steven Horn, Carroll's director of planning. The problems have led to restrictions on outdoor water use the past three summers.
"We are approaching an inadequate water situation, and there is no long-term relief in the budget," said Horn.
Since the 1970s, Carroll has directed much of its development to its southern end, but the county has not found new water sources in what is one of the fastest growing areas in the Baltimore region. At least 600 more homes are approved for construction and would not be affected by the ban.
"The people in South Carroll need reassurances that we will not overcrowd them with houses" and further burden the water system, said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "This situation is not fair to the people living there. They should have [adequate] water."
Frazier said if the county doesn't devise a viable plan, "we should be hung in the county square." However, she backed away from a ban, saying it would be better to develop land in increments over a longer period than planned.
Horn's proposal would curtail new subdivisions until officials can solve the water crisis that affects nearly 20 percent of the county population. During the proposed shutdown, subdivisions could not enter what is usually a two-year review process.
"This is not a building permit cap. Lots approved can proceed," said Horn. "This is just a temporary restriction on homes coming into the pipeline."
The commissioners said they would delay action on the ban for about a month. Commissioner Donald I. Dell said he remains optimistic the state will issue a permit for a high-yield well the county plans to build on property owned by Fairhaven Retirement Community along Route 32.
"The state will look pretty silly if they don't give us this permit," Dell said. "There's no reason why they shouldn't. If we get the well permit, there will be no reason for a moratorium."
The state announced its intention to issue a permit in March, but has not done so.
J. Michael Evans, county director of public works, said the county is seeking bids for construction of the well, a small pump station and connecting pipelines.
Susan Davies, co-director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said a moratorium should be the last resort.
"There is plenty of water available. It is a permit that is at issue," she said. "I cannot imagine that some bureaucrat would hold the citizens of Carroll County hostage. It is jarring to think they are not being given access to water."
The Fairhaven well would open too late for shortages expected this summer. The well would add as much as 340,000 gallons a day to the public water system, a more than 10 percent increase in water drawn daily from Liberty Reservoir, which is owned by the city of Baltimore and supplies 6,700 homes and businesses in South Carroll.
Also stalled in negotiations with Baltimore is an expansion of the county water treatment plant at Liberty Reservoir and a proposed 3-million-gallon increase in Carroll's daily draw from the lake.
"The county has not reached a crisis situation," Horn said, but he called for caution. "There is nothing budgeted for long-term improvements to the water and that is where we get into a box."
One group of Eldersburg residents has retained an attorney and is considering legal action against the county.
"Your actions in continuing to allow the issuance of building permits within the Freedom water district can only worsen the problem," attorney Judith S. Stainbrook wrote to the commissioners in February.
The commissioners replied May 24 that they shared residents' concerns and they outlined their plans.
"Obviously they are not taking our concerns seriously," said Ruth Clements of Eldersburg. "Why would they continue to issue building permits? There is a crisis and we are in it."