At a recent camp-out in Piney Run Park, Stewart Dearie, owner of Baldwin's Station, a gourmet restaurant in downtown Sykesville, dined with his two young daughters on charred hot dogs, baked beans and cheesy macaroni. For dessert, the family shared sticky toasted marshmallows.
"Nothing tastes better," he said, adding that it was the atmosphere, not the cuisine, that made the meal.
What better ambience than a crackling fire, a starry night and more than 800 acres of woods and lake at the southern end of Carroll County, he asked.
"So many people moved here because of things like this park," said Dearie. "This park is families, and it is utilized day and night. Now the county is going to mess with it, and that's a shame."
Faced with chronic water shortages in fast-growing South Carroll, county officials plan to build a $13.5 million water treatment plant at the park and draw as much as 3 million gallons a day from the lake for the area's 30,000 residents.
They promise that the charms of the lake won't fade and that park users have nothing to worry about, claims met with skepticism by regular visitors to the park.
Carroll County built the lake nearly 30 years ago as a reservoir. But over the years, Piney Run Park has become a beloved recreational destination for thousands every year.
"This park is a little oasis in the middle of suburban sprawl," said Lynette Lenz, a park naturalist employed by the county. "This place has evolved into such a valuable recreational asset. Why mess with something so good?"
As daylight waned on a recent Saturday, fishermen hauled their boats and catches from the lake. Families wrapped up their picnics, calling the children from playgrounds and trails. Ducks waddled along the lakeshore among toddlers casting pebbles into the water. Players got in a last set of tennis and a boisterous volleyball game wound down.
Dearie and several other parents set up tents and gathered logs for their campfire. "Instead of messing with Piney Run, the county should be figuring out how to make it better," he said. "These places are few and far between, and they should be protected."
James Jaco of Westminster, who was also camping with his family, said he feared large daily water withdrawals would upset the lake's ecology.
"You take one thing out of the food chain and it affects all the other animals," he said. "You pump that much water out and one thing will lead to another. Piney Run was meant to be a park, the way it is now."
Not to worry, said Carroll Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier.
"When we build the plant at Piney Run Park, it will be business as usual. We enjoy that park as much as everyone else and we want to keep recreation viable," she said.
Piney Run is the county's favorite park, with the best fishing spots and nature programs, residents said. In warm-weather months, its pavilions are usually booked for family reunions and parties.
The lake, which spreads across 300 acres into quiet coves, is dotted with canoes and paddleboats rented at several docks. The nature center offers exhibits and programs from how to make a natural wreath to how to track animals through a forest.
In July and August, the park drew nearly 23,000 visitors. This month, nearly 5,000 have gone to this bucolic spot about a mile south of Liberty Road in Sykesville. On any weekend, at least 300 people hike the trails to the nature center.
"This is a scenic park with a variety of activities," said Barbara Stamps, whose company, Amtel Corp., was holding its annual picnic in the park. "The parks in Howard County just don't have the maturity this one has. There is no nature center and no big, beautiful lake."
And nothing's going to happen to that lake, said Frazier. Fears that drawing water from the lake would disrupt park activity are wrong, she said.
The planned Piney Run water treatment plant would be the county's second in South Carroll, where outdoor water use was banned in the summers of 1997, 1998 and 1999 because of water shortages.
Taking water from Piney Run would allow the county to meet demand more efficiently and avoid further bans. The county draws 3 million gallons a day from Liberty Reservoir, which is owned by Baltimore and is more than 20 times larger than Piney Run Reservoir.
Carroll officials considered expanding the county's treatment plant on Liberty Reservoir and doubling the daily draw, but Frazier and Commissioner Donald I. Dell decided that using Carroll's water supply at Piney Run Reservoir would be more cost-effective. They also wanted a backup source to the 30-year-old plant at Liberty Reservoir.
"There are almost 2 billion gallons of water in Piney Run Lake," said Frazier. "Using that water won't hurt recreation. With a second plant, people will be able to wash their cars, fill their pools and water their lawns, even in a drought."
Residents said the daily draw on Piney Run Lake would cause a drop in the water level that may harm aquatic life in the shallow reaches of the lake.
But an engineering model of the effects of the proposed plant on the lake shows the drop would never be more than 4 feet, said Gary Horst, Carroll's director of enterprise and recreation services.
"You could drop a foot over the course of a summer and be no worse off," said Horst.
John Surrick, of the state Department of Natural Resources, which helps stock Piney Run Lake, said, "The potential for problems depends on the terrain and the time of year. The most critical time is when fish are spawning, usually in spring. You don't want to uncover spawning beds that are often in shallower water."
Four state agencies would review the county's application for withdrawing water to ensure no adverse effect on Piney Run's ecosystems, he said.
"This is the best fishing lake in the state," Ron Hutchinson of Sykesville said. "If they draw down the lake, and they will, they will hurt the spawning fish in the shallow end."
Brian Wiedecker often hauls a boat from Taneytown to fish at the lake. He caught a 6-pound bass last week, the same day a friend landed a 20-pound striper.
"Fishing is just better here," he said. "There is quality and size. The good food base helps to grow them big and that base grows along the shore."
Carroll is committed "to managing water needs of the population with recreational expectations," said Horst.
Carroll Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge opposes using Piney Run as a water source. She also wants engineering and environmental studies and public hearings.
"People want to be heard and they want their voices to amount to something," Gouge said. "We can't ram this down their throats."
Frazier said the decision is made. The county held five information hearings to tell residents how the plant would be financed.
Barbara Kreinar of Woodbine said she would welcome a chance to speak to commissioners at a public hearing. She would describe how barren the shoreline looked in the drought last year, when the water level dropped several feet. Feeder streams practically dried up, she said.
"They have not done the ecological or economic studies before committing to this thing," she said. "We have a jewel here and it will be decimated."