State officials have frozen development in Westminster until new sources of water have been secured for the rapidly growing Carroll County seat, which is scrambling to keep up with its population growth.
The Maryland Department of the Environment said the city could not meet existing water demand during even minor droughts, according to a letter received this week by the mayor of Westminster. But halting all development would inhibit the city's ability to pay for new water sources, Mayor Thomas K. Ferguson said yesterday.
The letter prompted the Carroll County Health Department to put a hold on all city building permits. The department, part of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, had stopped signing new record plats in June. The plats, which depict the boundaries of individual lots, are required for new subdivisions to move forward.
Edwin F. Singer, Carroll's environmental health director, said new building in the city will depend on the state and city coming to an agreement on how to provide water.
"Basically, all those building permits are being held until there's some kind of agreement between the city and MDE as to how it's going to be handled," Singer said. "It's going to impact everyone the same, whether it's a government, commercial or residential development."
Water shortages will become common in communities across the state, particularly in Southern Maryland, according to the chairman of the state's advisory committee on water resources.
"All of the state will be grappling with these issues: It's just a matter of time ... depending on where you have droughts and expected growth," said M. Gordon Wolman, who is also a professor of geography and international affairs at the Johns Hopkins University.
"It is fair to say that what we are seeing, in terms of preparation to provide water and manage it properly, is a ragged process that is inadequate to meet the expectations of the future," he said.
With about 18,000 residents, Westminster is the largest incorporated city in the region where exhausted groundwater resources has halted development. The city population has grown more than 70 percent since 1990.
Smaller towns, from Middletown in Frederick County to Mount Airy and Taneytown in Carroll, have similar problems. And water shortages have long troubled South Carroll, the county's most populous area, where future development hinges on the success of new wells and millions of dollars in upgrades to the Freedom Water Treatment Plant.
The state stopped all construction in Middletown in 2004, citing inadequate water supplies. The town acquired a new well last year that allows limited development.
In Mount Airy - where a voluntary growth moratorium was enacted in 2002 for two years - growth is limited to 24 homes a year. The state has ordered the town, on the Frederick-Carroll border, to solve its water problems.
Taneytown is evaluating growth because the city is nearing its water allocation limits set by the state, according to officials.
"They're all in a similar boat in terms of having a hard time finding good producing wells," said Barry O'Brien, a division chief of the environmental department's water supply program.
Westminster would be short about 700,000 gallons a day in a drought, based on current demand, said John Grace, also a division chief of the department's water supply program.
Westminster consumes about 3 million gallons of water a day. When the state sent the letter, more than 500 new residential water connections were in various stages of approval - including 292 connections slated for this year, Grace said.
But Erik Fisher, a Westminster planner, said it is likely that fewer than 100 residential units could have secured building permits by the end of this year.
With an already slumping housing market, the plan for growth restrictions troubled Westminster's Realtors and developers.
"It won't be good for anybody who wants to build a house right now," said Garry Haines, who co-owns Haines Realty with his father, state Sen. Larry E. Haines. "That's not fair to people who have owned a lot for a longtime. If they decide to get a building permit now, they've got a big surprise."
Westminster has been annexing properties in the past few years, and eight more parcels are in the pipeline, said Matthew B. Davis, a Westminster planner.
But the annexations would be delayed because a new state law requires municipalities to demonstrate adequacy of water supply and wastewater treatment before annexing more residential land.
The environmental department proposed several corrective measures, most of them costly and time-intensive projects, city officials said.
Construction on such improvements probably will be delayed until spring or summer next year, said Jeff Glass, Westminster's acting director of planning and public works.
"That's where MDE is going: We either drastically reduce or limit development until we start to bring some additional water sources online," Glass said.
The city originally planned to draw 500,000 gallons of water per day from the Medford Quarry on Route 31, but the project has doubled in cost. The environmental department suggested that the city construct a larger pipeline from the quarry to empty directly into Westminster's Cranberry Reservoir, Grace said.
"Yes, it's a larger project now than they envisioned, but it's one we know has a guaranteed solution," he said. The $2.2 million project will now cost an estimated $5.5 million, Glass said.
The agency also recommended that Westminster purchase land to enlarge the city's 115 million-gallon Cranberry Reservoir.
Pumping water daily from the well at the Koontz Creamery property is a third option that the state suggested. The well produces about 200 gallons of water a minute, Glass said.
Bids for a new Cranberry Water Treatment Plant near the reservoir came in at almost double the $5 million budgeted. The city rejected the two bids this week.
Ferguson said he hopes that city and county officials will reach a compromise with the environmental department when they meet in the near future.
"I don't think that bringing all economic development to a screeching halt is in anyone's best interest," the mayor said. "Part of our goal is to see where there's a middle ground here, between zero and unfettered growth."