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Carroll takes over operating Bramble Hills community well

Carroll County's public water system will get slightly larger and more costly today when public works officials take over a well that the county did not want to operate.

After a two-year court battle, a Carroll County circuit judge ordered the county last month to operate and maintain a private water system in the Bramble Hills development outside Westminster.

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The water supply issue in the small neighborhood dates to 1998, when residents' dispute with a private well company prompted the Maryland Public Service Commission to intervene.

Two years ago, the state Department of the Environment became involved because of safety concerns and took the matter to court.

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To prepare for the takeover of the water system, the county commissioners approved yesterday a recommendation that customers connected to the Bramble Hills system pay the same rate as those connected to the county's three other public water systems.

Although charging the same fee to the 12 homes in the Bramble Hills community would result in an annual loss of nearly $15,000, the county's policy has been to consider its individual systems throughout the county as one entity, said Frank Schaeffer, deputy director of Carroll's Public Works Department.

"All the costs are shared across the system," Schaeffer said.

Anticipating the possibility the county would be forced to operate the system, Schaeffer said, public works officials included the system's estimated costs into the county's budget for fiscal 2005, which begins July 1.

Under the county's water rate structure, Bramble Hills residents using 200 gallons a day can expect to pay $373.41 annually, including maintenance costs, Schaeffer said. The county will also ask each household to pay a one-time charge of $1,500 to install water meters and valves, he said.

If the county operated the Bramble Hills system as a separate entity, each household there would probably have paid an annual water charge of $1,500 to cover operating costs, Schaeffer said. The water system needs major improvements, he said.

Public works officials estimate that the county needs to spend $77,000 to replace a water main soon and $36,000 to build a driveway to the pump house.

Those estimates prompted Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge to ask where the county would find the money to improve the system.

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County Comptroller Gene Curfman told the commissioners that the county would seek state grants for capital projects related to the water system.

Bramble Hills is made up of half-acre lots, too small for individual wells.

Since the 1960s, residents have bought water from a company that operated a communal well behind their homes. The state Public Service Commission, which regulates private water wells statewide, did not know about the Bramble Hills system until the dispute broke out.

The commission began establishing water rates there, but in 1999 it revoked the authority of the system's owners to operate the franchise because of safety concerns, according to court documents.

The Department of the Environment then ordered the county to assume control of the system. The county did so until September 2002, when a new owner bought the property where the water system is situated, with the understanding that the county was operating it, according to court documents.

When the owner failed to meet public health regulations in operating the water system, the documents say, the MDE filed suit in Carroll County Circuit Court. Environmental officials asked the court to order the county to take over responsibility for the system if the owner did not assume control of the water system.

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Last month, Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. ordered the county to take over the system and assume the deed on the well property.

"While this conclusion of this matter may not be ideal for Carroll County from a budgetary standpoint, all parties to the matter ... agreed that the only practical solution was for the county to assume control of the system," Beck wrote in his decision.


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