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Middletown fights state ban on building

MIDDLETOWN — MIDDLETOWN - Empty-nesters since their daughters left for college, Craig and Maggie Toussaint were ready to ease into retirement and a new house in this town of rolling fields just west of Frederick.

Craig Toussaint, a part-time engineer, had his sights on the championship golf course down the road from their subdivision. Maggie Toussaint, a retired toxicologist, planned to write murder mysteries from a loft with views of South Mountain.

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But the state of Maryland had other plans. This month, Environment Secretary Kendl P. Philbrick imposed a building ban on Middletown, saying the town had ignored two years of warnings that its growth was outstripping its water supply.

The rare step cast into limbo the lives of the Toussaints and about a dozen other families who had signed contracts and put down deposits for custom homes, but were still in line for building permits. The Toussaints have sold their old house in Frederick. Several families have scrambled to find month-to-month rentals while the state and town trade accusations over who is to blame.

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"We feel like we're collateral damage caught in a bureaucratic battle," Toussaint said, standing with his wife in the knee-high weeds where their house was supposed to be. "Right now, we have no idea what to do."

The story of Middletown's water woes is only partly about dream homes deferred. It is also about a town that staked its fiscal future on fees from new development, and about a clash between two state policies - one that promotes growth in places such as Middletown, one that limits the amount of groundwater a town can tap.

Middletown's ordeal, while an extreme case, is a harbinger for growing rural towns across Maryland, state officials and experts say. As Marylanders spread farther from urban centers, small towns dependent on groundwater will face increasing pressure - and possibly state decrees - to find more water or halt growth.

Last month, state environmental officials told Taneytown, in western Carroll County, that it had too little water to support new construction. Around the same time, the Maryland Department of the Environment cut by a third the volume of water Carroll had hoped to draw from planned wells in Sykesville. Carroll commissioners, in turn, put sharp curbs on home construction and urged residents to conserve water.

Mount Airy, which straddles Carroll and Frederick counties, recently lifted a two-year building ban but now requires developers to find water before starting construction.

State environmental officials say the issue has become a high priority since a severe drought two years ago led the city of Frederick to halt most construction and plan for emergency truck deliveries of water. An advisory panel on Maryland's long-term water situation, created by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. after the 2002 drought, is expected to issue a report next month.

"We're looking very hard at this issue," said Virginia Kearney, the MDE's deputy director of water management. "We want to see growth happen in these designated priority funding areas," she added, referring to places pegged for growth under the state's Smart Growth program. "But we need to make sure the infrastructure is there to accommodate it."

In Middletown, the state and town are feuding over whether there is enough groundwater to support the expansion of two subdivisions of $350,000 to $600,000 homes.

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Philbrick imposed the moratorium after Middletown defied repeated warnings and announced plans this year to issue 44 new building permits.

Middletown officials have appealed the state's action and scoff at the idea that taps are going dry. They say the town has never withdrawn more than its permitted 314,500 gallons a day and accuse the state of using unrealistically high estimates of its future water needs.

"Nobody in this town has ever turned on a tap and not had water, but MDE keeps pounding away at this," says John Miller, the town burgess, or mayor. "They think we're not sophisticated enough to handle this. Just because you have gun racks and fishing poles doesn't mean you can't figure things out."

The two developments at the town's edge, Foxfield and Glenbrook, have drawn a parade of affluent families and retirees enamored with the mountain views, quiet cul-de-sacs and 18-hole Hollow Creek Golf Club. Middletown's population reached 2,805 last year, up 53 percent from 1,834 in 1990.

Many growing towns would pounce on the chance to blame the state for a building ban. But Middletown has a hefty financial stake in expansion. Of the town's $1.2 million annual budget, $300,000 in revenue comes directly from developers in the form of fees for townwide water and sewer upgrades.

Under a deal with developers signed more than a decade ago, the town loses the entire $300,000 - a quarter of its budget - if the state halts building permits. "The financial well-being of the town is tied directly to growth," said Andrew J. Bowen, the town administrator. "If you impose the moratorium, you cut off the revenue streams to fund solving the [water supply] problem."

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John L. Thompson Jr., president of the Frederick County commissioners, said the town erred in forging such ties to developers. "As long as the town government is going to be a mere field office for developers," he said, "they're going to continue to have this problem."

Town officials counter that they have passed tough growth limits in recent years and will require future developers to bring their own water - and a little extra for the town. But they say they cannot back out of legal commitments to the two developments under way. Nearly 300 of 559 planned houses remain to be built.

In the meantime, the town is pressing ahead with its hunt for water. Since 2001, it has dug two dozen test wells, put four new wells into operation, blasted bedrock to increase water flow, and built a second water treatment plant. It bought 150 acres outside town in a quest for water. It has acquired water from local golf courses, and has tried to buy water rights from farmers.

But these efforts have yielded a trickle. Like other parts of Western and Central Maryland, Middletown straddles dense bedrock, which makes water extraction tricky and slows the flow of rainwater into springs and wells.

Adding to the trouble are relatively new state policies that set tougher limits on groundwater withdrawals and require towns to have enough water to survive record droughts, not just average use.

Middletown's best hope now is to annex county land, which would entitle it to a larger share of the watershed's groundwater. But the only landowners willing to consider annexation want the right to build enough houses - 3.5 per acre - to qualify for state sewer, water and road funds under the Smart Growth program. That would create so much demand for water, the town says, that it would defeat the purpose of annexation.

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James R. Cohen, an urban planner at the University of Maryland, says that catch highlights the need for better coordination between state growth policies and local water supply planning. Most towns' water and sewer plans were written well before the enactment of the state's Smart Growth policy in 1997.

In Maryland, a state accustomed to plentiful water, "it's very difficult for jurisdictions to accept the fact there may be water supply limitations to their continued growth," Cohen said.

Several longtime Middletown residents say they welcome the state's intervention. Larry Palmer, 58, left the town, where he grew up, for a log cabin in the woods in Frederick County three years ago. His new home reminds him of Middletown before dairy farms gave way to golf courses and subdivisions.

He still cuts hair at his barbershop in Middletown, where he has worked since he was an 11-year-old "lather boy." But the golf bag-toting families moving in from places like Montgomery County and Frederick prefer to head to the mall for what Palmer calls "styling."

"They got their way of life; I got mine," he said. "That's why I was gone."

Farhad Memarsadeghi, the president of Admar Custom Homes, Foxfield's developer, says he is bracing for a big financial hit and possible layoffs among his 28 employees. At least one buyer has requested - and gotten - her deposit back.

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Cheryl and David Bradshaw, who have spent the past five months perfecting blueprints for their house, plan to stick it out, at least for now. The couple sold their house in Frederick last month, and enrolled their three children in Middletown schools. But their next move will be to Cheryl Bradshaw's father's condominium in Frederick.

"They're not being fair," Bradshaw, a stay-at-home mother, says of the state. "They're not thinking about the lives they're affecting."


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