Frustrated with her colleagues' refusal to endorse a longstanding agreement that would ultimately bring more water to populous South Carroll, Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge has decided to act on her own.
Gouge says she will sign the Watershed Protection Agreement, which safeguards from development the land surrounding Liberty Reservoir, a 45 billion-gallon lake owned by Baltimore City. The reservoir forms Carroll's southern boundary with Baltimore County.
"It is extremely important to continue our agreement with Baltimore and extend our contract at Liberty," said Gouge, who serves as president of the three-member board of commissioners. "I am willing to take this on my shoulders and sign the thing. In the past, it has been binding with one person signing per jurisdiction."
Although the 16-year-old agreement is not legally binding, it is "the jurisdictions putting down on paper how they will work together. Signing is basically a gesture of good faith," said Bob McDonald, chief counselor for the state attorney general.
Some parties, however, are not certain Carroll will abide by the agreement. Given the vocal opposition from Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier, other jurisdictions involved in the pact are unclear about the weight of Gouge's signature.
"I am not able to predict what will be the council's interpretation of the county's overall commitment," said Jack Anderson, coordinator of the watershed protection program for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.
But, Gouge is Carroll's representative on the BMC, whose members enforce the agreement. Usually, one signature per each jurisdiction is sufficient, he said.
Bob Murrow, spokesman for the city Board of Public Works, said, "We have received no official notification of Carroll's intention to reaffirm the agreement. But, if reports are true, this is good news, for the 1.8 million people who depend on the protection, integrity and preservation of watersheds."
Dell and Frazier have said the document interferes with Carroll's right to determine local land use. "We are good stewards over the land, but we have a God-given right to use the land," said Frazier. "I don't disagree with the agreement, but just with a few sticking points. Most people don't understand the expanse the agreement affects. It says we can't rezone ag or conservation land in areas where we planned for growth to occur."
The Liberty Reservoir watershed encompasses nearly one-third of the county's land area and includes five of its nine planned growth areas.
"Dell and I don't want to sign unless the wording is changed," Frazier said. "Right now it ties our hands."
Dell said Gouge "should not sign away our right to zoning. At least, she cannot sign on behalf of the board."
Anderson views Gouge's decision to sign as a positive that "shows one leader recognizes the importance of this agreement, that benefits Carroll County as well as the rest of the metropolitan area," he said.
Gouge's signature could end the stalemate with Baltimore. Carroll wants to double its daily draw - now set at 3 million gallons - from the reservoir and expand its treatment plant there. The city has made its approval of both projects contingent on reaffirmation of the agreement. The impasse will not go away until Carroll signs the agreement, Gouge said.
"The more we dig in, the more they'll dig in," she said. "We are already protecting the reservoir, which is the city's best and cleanest supply. Our refusal is a source of contention and it looks like we have something to hide."
South Carroll, where about 18,000 people rely on water from Liberty, has endured three consecutive summers of water shortages. So far, rain and cool weather have prevented a recurrence of water bans this year.
The city is unsure whether Gouge's lone signature "means the full force of Carroll County government will abide by the agreement," Murrow said. "If this is a symbolic gesture, it would not satisfy our goals for protecting the watershed."
Carroll has not endorsed the agreement since 1996 and is the only metropolitan county to withhold its support.
"This is a goodwill agreement between counties that use the reservoir," Gouge said. "It is the same type of thing the local jurisdictions have done together on other issues. No harm is meant to Carroll by what is in there. We should concentrate industrial growth where it is already and not in the watershed."
Rather than negotiate with the city, Frazier and Dell have decided to build a $12 million water treatment plant at Piney Run, a reservoir that Carroll owns and uses primarily for recreation.
Gouge voted against Piney Run in favor of expanding the county operation at Liberty.
"Piney Run is our first choice," Frazier said. "It makes economic sense for long-term planning. And, it can be expanded. It gives us the most flexibility, is the best choice economically and allows us to be in control of our own water supply."
Many residents disagree. Piney Run's size and the limited number of its feeder streams have raised concerns that it might not handle a daily draw that could reach 6 million gallons. Piney Run holds about 90 million gallons, while Liberty Reservoir holds 45 billion gallons.
"Building Piney Run is a $12 million act of vanity," said George Murphy and environmental activist and Sykesville resident. "This decision has the commissioners beating their chests saying how they stood up for Carroll's independence."
Gouge wanted to delay the vote on Piney Run until public hearings were scheduled this fall. With the decision made this month, comment at the hearings will be relegated to explanations of how taxpayers will finance the new system. But, she is urging opponents to use the meetings as a forum.
"Maybe if people understand what is happening, votes will change. If they want their voices heard, this is the time."