When Carroll County officials approved plans for the $30 million Eldersburg Marketplace in February, they included one caveat: There might not be any water for the complex of stores and restaurants. A month later, they gave the same message to developers of a 265-unit retirement village proposed for 27 acres of nearby farmland.
Even in fast-growing South Carroll, where water rationing has become a summer ritual, those were startling admissions -- and a sign of heightened problems in an area that annually absorbs more than a third of the county's new homes.
Carroll County's fierce independence has been a major roadblock in getting relief, even as the area sits above a plentiful aquifer and adjoins the 45 billion-gallon Liberty Reservoir.
County officials have fought a running battle with the state and Gov. Parris N. Glendening over growth issues. For more than a year, the state has withheld permits that would allow the county to build five wells on state-owned property.
Also, county officials are squabbling with Baltimore, which owns the reservoir. The county refuses to sign a regional agreement limiting development in the watershed. Without that signature, the county can't draw more than the 3 million gallons of water a day that the city allots from Liberty.
Donald I. Dell, one of three commissioners who govern the county, bristles at what he calls interference in Carroll's right to grow.
"We have a legal obligation to run Carroll County," he said. "We should not give that right to the people of Baltimore."
Urged to sign
The conflict distresses many of South Carroll's 30,000 residents -- about two-thirds of whom use the public water system.
Community activist Angela Lee has urged the commissioners to sign the reservoir pact.
"The county created this dilemma and dug a hole so deep that it doesn't know how to get out of it, short of signing the agreement and living by it," Lee said. "The city is righteously asking, 'Don't pollute the lake.' Why balk at a longstanding agreement now?"
Lee rebuffed Dell when he asked her to circulate a petition demanding that state officials issue the well permits.
"He acted as though we were being maltreated by the state and the county had no dealings in the water problems," she said. "The wells are a Band-Aid approach at best."
At odds with governor
The commissioners, all conservative Republicans, have found themselves at odds with the Democratic governor in recent months over land use, water issues and roads. Glendening stunned the commissioners last month during his address at the Maryland Municipal League convention when he singled out Carroll as the county that "consistently resists Smart Growth," his initiative to control sprawl.
Recently, both sides have made efforts to mend fences. The county has decided to direct state land preservation funds to the watershed area. The governor told Carroll that he would consider a visit, if development policies improve.
Drilling for wells
Still, Carroll has been stymied in its effort to supplement the reservoir's water supply.
Carroll drilled a series of six test wells in Sykesville more than a year ago, but only one has won a state building permit, and that came just a few weeks ago. Many in the county believe that the remaining permits will be withheld until local officials adopt policies consistent with Smart Growth.
Liberty Reservoir supplies water to nearly 7,000 homes and businesses in South Carroll. But demand often outstrips supply. Those who rely on the public water system have endured three consecutive summers of water shortages. A prolonged spell of hot, dry weather could mean a return of bans on watering lawns, washing cars and filling pools.
Faced with pressing water shortages, Dell and Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier have turned to a $12 million water system at Piney Run Lake, county-owned property that is a prime recreation area.
"Piney Run gives us the most flexibility and allows us control of our own water supply," Frazier said. "We won't have to ask anybody for water."
Some South Carroll residents say the commissioners' independent streak has impaired their common sense. Many fear that the lake -- about 90 million gallons -- cannot endure losing large amounts of water daily.
Sykesville resident George Murphy, a former commissioner candidate, calls Piney Run "a precious recreational resource surrounded by rare wetlands."
"They are willing to compromise the environmental and recreational benefits of Piney Run rather than eat a little crow and talk to the city," he said. "It may be expedient to build at Piney Run, but it is not the best thing for the long run. Piney Run is much smaller and more fragile than Liberty."
Doubling the draw
Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, president of the three-member board, favors a less costly remedy: doubling the daily draw from Liberty to 6 million gallons and expanding the county's plant there. But those improvements are tied to ratifying the reservoir protection pact.
"Baltimore City's position will continue to be that approval of plant expansion is contingent upon Carroll County's support of current language contained in the Reservoir Watershed Protection Agreement," George L. Winfield, city public works director, wrote in April to a community group. "Hopefully, the long-range benefits of protecting the water resources relied upon by 1.8 million people will prevail over the current development interests in the county."
Frazier says there is room to negotiate but won't endorse the present wording.
"The watershed is not just a mile area from the lake," she said. "It takes up a third of our county and includes five of our growth areas. This is not reasonable."
Dell has balked at one paragraph in the watershed agreement, which states that "conservation and agricultural zoning of the watershed should be maintained and not reduced." He says he won't sign an agreement that "betrays the people of Carroll County" and gives away their rights to plan growth.
Gouge countered, "We are betraying them already, if we allow building to take place and then do not give them water."
Dell and Frazier outvoted Gouge recently and approved the Piney Run plant, a project that could take five years to complete.
'No sense of permanency'
"They are making decisions that will affect the county and its taxpayers for the next several generations, but they have no sense of permanency about their decisions," said Jeannie Nichols, a member of the Sykesville Town Council. "The property tax rate is going to go through the roof, and the fallout from poor decisions will last years."
Lee calls the commissioners' recent decision bluster.
"The commissioners may well be using Piney Run to say, 'See, we don't need you up here,'" she said. "It is a way -- and not a good way -- to force the hand of the city."