ELKTON - In what is being called "a monumental breakthrough," government officials of eight Cecil County towns have agreed to work together and possibly come up with a plan that could result in a countywide water and sewage system.
"This may not be a milestone for other counties, but it is a huge step for us," said Phyllis Kilby, a Cecil County commissioner.
She said there has been a long history of the towns refusing to cooperate out of fear of losing control over water connections, a major source of revenue.
Kilby said officials of eight incorporated towns, along with county representatives, first met Jan. 23 to form the Water and Sewage Infrastructure Implementation Council.
Council members include representatives of Elkton, North East, Perryville, Charlestown, Chesapeake City, Cecilton, Port Deposit and Rising Sun.
"It's terrific that the municipalities and the county are beginning to work together to address these issues," said W. Paul Gilbert, director of the Cecil County office of economic development. "There are far more resources available if we work together."
A lack of cooperation among town officials on water and sewage in the past has been blamed for the county losing out on what would have been one of its largest economic development projects ever.
Harland Graef, chairman of Bainbridge Development Corp., said that Lowe Enterprises pulled out of an agreement to transform the vacant Bainbridge Training Center into a $500 million resort, conference center, business park and retirement community with golf courses, swimming and tennis. It would have employed up to 2,400 people.
"Lowe waited for two years, and there was no definitive agreement on a water and sewage plan and no plan to finance one," said Graef. "That's why Lowe left."
Kilby said that a plan to upgrade Perryville's water and sewage system so that it could also serve Port Deposit and Bainbridge fell through when officials of the two towns couldn't come to an agreement.
Bainbridge Development Corp. is a quasi-public agency created by the General Assembly in 1999 to develop the former Navy boot camp, which closed in 1976.
Lowe is one of the nation's leading real estate development companies. It has pursued projects around the world.
New developers are looking at the Bainbridge site, and Kilby is hopeful the water issue will be solved.
She said industrial development in other parts of the county also is being hindered by the lack of adequate water and sewerage.
Kilby said last year's severe drought is a major factor in the new cooperation between the towns and the county on what might eventually lead to a countywide water and sewage system that would include a county reservoir.
She said the drought put serious pressure on town water supplies. "Elkton is going to have a serious water issue in the next few years. They have a lot of residential development plans on the book, but they will run out of water."
Kilby acknowledged that the formation of the new council "is a delicate situation. The county and towns have not had a working relationship up to this point," she said. "There is a lot of suspicion on the part of the towns."
She said one area the council wants to explore is the possibility of forming a countywide water authority. "We'll see if the climate is right for such a move and determine if the towns are willing to participate."
"If we do it," she continued, "it will have to be crafted in a way that the towns don't give up their autonomy, that they still have control over their systems. We will have to find ways that work to everybody's benefit."
Kilby said she would also like to explore the feasibility of building a reservoir that would serve the entire county. She was reluctant to say where the reservoir would be located because there have been no negotiations with the property owners.
The benefit of a countywide system, she said, "is that citizens of the county would be sure - as sure as they can be when dealing with Mother Nature - of having a safe and adequate water supply."
She said improved water and sewerage would lead to more industrial development and would take pressure off farm owners because it would shift industrial development from rural areas to locations closer to towns.