Talking to the top instead of off the top


IF REGIONALISM is truly a two-way street, and not just an incoming money chute for Baltimore City and Baltimore County ...

If the Baltimore Metropolitan Council is more than just a political chautauqua ...

If there is truly an imperative for regional cooperation and not dictation ...

Then Donald Dell is entirely justified in demanding that he talk directly with the elected heads of the Baltimore jurisdictions about the impasse with Carroll County over water rights and watershed protection of Liberty Reservoir.

Not that the Carroll commissioner enters any such tete-a-tete as a political equal or even with a strong hand to play. That is the enduring disadvantage of the tri-headed commissioner system in a metro area and of being a much smaller county.

But it's important for the aging jurisdictions of shrinking population and power to recognize that fast-growing Carroll must be taken seriously in its views on matters of regional importance.

It has a legitimate argument and position that should be made directly to the other top leaders, and not dismissed by their minor bureaucrats and minions.

We all understand that the Keystone Kommissioners have done much to erode their credibility and their own potential influence on such issues as the environment and growth management. Their obvious internal squabbling does not engender confidence among other counties' officials.

They've become the easy whipping boy of the governor for just about anything, and they are hard-shell Republicans trying to deal with liberal Democrats across the county lines.

Nevertheless, Carroll's top elected officials must deal with the other top leaders on Liberty Reservoir.

Julia Gouge is the official president of the board of commissioners, and she has had a good working relationship with others on the watershed issue. She's the county's representative on the metropolitan council.

But the political reality is that Mr. Dell, with the approval of his ideological soul mate Robin Frazier, has the required two-thirds of the commissioner votes to make a decision that can stick.

He and Ms. Frazier want to develop part of the 160-square-mile watershed, which lies mostly within Carroll County.

But the city owns the massive reservoir, and Baltimore County contains the rest of the watershed. Those two jurisdictions want no further development, which they say will endanger water quality.

Carroll gets 3 million gallons daily from the reservoir. It needs another 3 million gallons to support its mounting thirst in South Carroll. But there will be no more water unless Carroll agrees to the development freeze, per the 21-year-old Reservoir Watershed Management Agreement that is up for renewal.

After declaring her opposition to renewing the pact a year ago, Ms. Gouge recently said she would sign the agreement pact individually. But there's skepticism of her binding authority for the county.

So let Commissioner Dell go ahead and meet with Mayor Martin O'Malley and with County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger to lay out the position of Carroll's government and to attempt to bargain a feasible accord.(It's not as if either of the Baltimores is a pillar of environmental virtue. The city paid a million-dollar federal fine less than a year ago for years of water pollution by its treatment plants. And the county has allowed the loss of far more wetlands than has Carroll.)

Carroll needs to develop a larger industrial tax base, a revenue benefit that the other two jurisdictions have long enjoyed. About 600 acres of conservation land in the watershed have been identified by the commissioners for industrial rezoning to encourage new business development.

Carroll officials believe they can take adequate steps to buffer the development and limit environmental harm. The rigid development freeze contained in the old agreement is unfair, they say.

Then there's the state Smart Growth program that directs growth to established communities; Carroll's hot growth centers lie in the watershed.

And frankly, without commitment to the watershed compact, Carroll could legally rezone land that would encourage even more development pressures in the Liberty watershed.

Yes, Carroll needs water from Liberty, a 45-billion-gallon lake that would barely notice the extra draw. But additional wells could be developed to help meet the demand. So, in the longer run, could construction of a new water plant at Carroll's Piney Run Lake.

Still, Liberty water would be the cheapest, fastest, most reliable, best solution for Carroll. All parties know that.

The leaders of Baltimore and Baltimore County are not much interested in negotiating with Mr. Dell. But they should be.

It's also unclear if Mr. Dell is serious about negotiating an agreement, rather than simply making a personal statement.

That's the catch. Carroll County has to show that it has the credibility to negotiate and to follow through with required government approval. It's a tall order for Mr. Dell, despite his three terms as a commissioner and a year as chairman of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

There is room for compromise, with firm, specific provisions that could allow the waters of Liberty to be fruitfully shared and vigorously protected.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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