Unable to fully use its wastewater treatment plant because of citizen lawsuits against Carroll County, Hampstead is perilously close to running out of sewage capacity.
Based on its current state-permitted pumping capacity of 700,000 gallons a day, the town's treatment plant could not handle all of Hampstead's planned projects and approved subdivisions, county officials told town leaders in a presentation Tuesday night.
While that does not mean people living in town will see effects in the next few years, it does mean the Health Department might refuse final approval on properties under development.
Town leaders knew capacity problems were on the horizon, said Hampstead Town Manager Ken Decker. But the immediacy and magnitude of the problems surprised everyone.
"I guess the good news is that we're not actually over capacity, but we're right on the razor's edge," Decker said.
The town's plant could pump 900,000 gallons a day, plenty to cover Hampstead's sewage needs for the near future. But the town and county remain loath to increase the pump rate because of several lawsuits Baltimore County residents have brought against Carroll, claiming the effluent from Hampstead has eroded their properties and polluted their streams. Until those lawsuits are settled, state environmental officials have said, Carroll would be increasing the rate at its potential liability.
The future of the lawsuits seems unclear. Members of Piney Run Preservation Association, a group of about 175 families in northern Baltimore County, have spent the past 10 years battling Carroll County in and out of court. They claim, among other things, that Piney Run can no longer support a healthy trout population because effluent from the plant overheats the stream and that the stream's banks have been eroded by high-velocity water barreling from the plant.
Their case took a hit when the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled for Carroll County last summer, but the association has appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court and has several other cases pending.
Town and county officials realize they might have little recourse until the cases finally end.
Decker said developer Steve Walton will be most directly affected by the capacity problems. Walton's 289-unit Westwood Park development has been under way since 1996, but some of about 40 homes and 48 condominiums could fail to receive final Health Department approval if the town's pumping capacity stays the same, said health inspector Charley Zeleski.
Walton attended Tuesday's meeting and though he said he wasn't surprised by the news, he added: "From my standpoint, this subdivision was approved several years ago with county assurances that proper sewer capacity would be in place."
Walton pointed out that the problem hardly would shut him down, and said he probably will not suffer the effects for a few years. He hopes he and town officials can find extra capacity.
"It's something we just have to work out," he said. "I don't think anybody's liable or to blame."
In one solution, the county commissioners could grant the town permission to use some of a 41,000 gallon-a-day reserve set up in the 1980s. The town plans to request such assistance for its planned development of the old Hampstead Elementary School and for improvements at North Carroll Middle School. County aid on those projects would ease pressure on the town, if only slightly.
AG/GFI Hampstead Inc. also has unused wastewater treatment capacity at the former Black & Decker Corp. facility, but county officials seemed skeptical Tuesday that the plant there would be compatible with the town's needs.