Despite the concerns of Gov. Parris N. Glendening and South Carroll residents, two of the county commissioners approved yesterday a half-million-dollar contract to design the Piney Run water treatment plant.
The action came during a brief but contentious session, with Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier outvoting Julia Walsh Gouge, who has long opposed the $14 million project. The decision comes a day after the governor strongly criticized Carroll County's development record and vowed to intervene in local planning decisions that run counter to his vision of Smart Growth.
"We can't turn Carroll County over to the state," Dell said after awarding a $477,750 contract to Black and Veatch, a Gaithersburg engineering firm. "We have a sworn obligation as Carroll County leaders. If the governor challenges that, then so be it. Let the battles begin."
Dell and Frazier envision the plant, which would double the water supply in populous and fast-growing South Carroll, as a solution to the region's water woes. The governor and others believe the plant would open the door to more development. Residents also fear the plant would curtail popular recreation activities on the 300-acre lake near Sykesville.
"The governor is concerned about what is going on in South Carroll, particularly with the Piney Run Reservoir," said Michelle Byrnie, a Glendening spokeswoman. "He is keeping an eye on and monitoring this project in the sense that it could open the area up to more development and the threat of sprawl."
Rather than expand a plant at Liberty Reservoir, Dell and Frazier chose to build at Piney Run. Gouge favors the Liberty option and the construction of wells to augment South Carroll's water supply.
In voting against the contract, Gouge said the county has no state construction permit for the plant and no access road to the site. In addition, she said the county faces widespread opposition to the project.
"We spent $2 million for this design years ago and the last board threw it out as too expensive," Gouge said of the previous board, on which Dell served. "Now you want to spend another half-million dollars and you don't even know if the state will give us a building permit."
Dell countered: "I want to get this project started, so we have something to show the state. We won't get much out of the state until they see a plan."
Black and Veatch will revise its original design and scale back the plant capacity from 6 million gallons a day to 3 million gallons, according to the contract. The cost estimate includes the company's efforts to secure a construction permit from the state and putting the work out to bid.
The state's approval is far from certain, Gouge cautioned.
The commissioners have tentatively scheduled a June 12 meeting with the Maryland Department of the Environment to discuss state requirements for the project.
Two months ago, Dell and Gouge delayed the contract until an access road issue was settled, but Dell said yesterday that he was ready to proceed even though the issue remained unresolved.
The county plans to widen and pave Hollenberry Road and use it to reach the plant, which would be built at the southeastern end of 300-acre Piney Run Lake. Without easements - only three of 10 residents have agreed to the widening - Gouge said the county should not spend any more money on the project.
"We should have all the rights of way before signing this contract," she said.
Frazier countered: "We will get them and if we don't, we still have a 15-foot easement."
With that narrow of a roadway, however, the county could not transport heavy construction equipment to the site, staff said.
Gouge made another plea for a long-promised informational meeting for residents of South Carroll, who have been vocal in their opposition to the plant. Residents have launched a petition drive and a letter-writing campaign opposing the project. They plan to forward copies to Glendening in hopes the governor will quash the project.
"If we do this contract, we have said to the people in South Carroll that there are no other options for water," Gouge said.
Dell said, "It is time to move on. The longer this goes on, the more controversial it gets."
Dell has attended several recent meetings in South Carroll, which he called unpleasant shouting matches.
"It is the same small group of people, and the more comments I hear, the less interested I am in meeting them and getting beat up," Dell said. "We have to use facts. We can't base government on emotions."
The county has mailed South Carroll residents a brochure detailing the facts about water supply in the area and had a lengthy news conference on the issues last year. Frazier said she is willing to schedule an information meeting, but doubts it would have any effect.
"We have heard their concerns and addressed their concerns," Frazier said. "Our information shows their concerns are unfounded. Piney Run is the best way to go in the long run."
Dell and Gouge were on the board that approved the original design in 1993, but Gouge dissented at that time, too. She left government soon after and returned to office in 1998. In 1996, Dell was on the board that scrapped the Piney Run project in favor of wells and an expansion to the plant on Liberty Reservoir, which serves nearly 7,000 homes in South Carroll.
The contract says Black and Veatch will do 30 percent of the contract work and then give the county a preliminary estimate of construction costs. The county reserves the right to terminate the contract.