Carroll County's serious water problems must be resolved before economic development and residential growth can continue to flourish in the region, the two incumbent commissioners' said recently.
Commissioners Julia Walsh Gouge and Dean L. Minnich focused on groundwater shortages and their impact on future growth during the board's State of the County address in Westminster Thursday.
Newly elected Commissioner Michael D. Zimmer went in another direction, discussing the need for road improvements to curb fatal car accidents in the region.
"What's going to happen if the towns cannot take the growth?" Gouge asked. "You're going to see farmland gobbled up, and we're not going to have these beautiful hills. That's something we need to avoid."
The commissioners encouraged the 250 members of the audience at Martin's Westminster banquet hall to voice their opinions as the county works to update and unveil a draft of its revised master plan this summer.
While the business people were less familiar with the comprehensive plan, called "Pathways," most agreed that they harbored strong opinions about how Carroll should grow.
For more than 30 years, the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce has hosted the annual address. The commissioners generally touch upon business themes, according to Richard Haddad, the chamber's president.
"It's almost like listening to the president giving the State of the Union address," Haddad said before the event. "You generally know what it's about. You're just listening to the specifics."
Gouge opened her speech with what she said was good news. The county has re-financed $24 million in bonds at a 3.78 percent interest rate, saving over $1 million in the process, she said.
"That's going to make it a little less expensive to operate government," Gouge said.
On the water shortages, Gouge drummed up support for the county's two planned reservoirs at Union Mills and Gillis Falls, explaining why groundwater is failing to recharge and why new state requirements have cut in half the amount the county and its municipalities can draw from its wells.
During the drought of 2002, Carroll's leaders and residents demanded that the state Department of the Environment prevent such situations in the future, Gouge said.
"Well, they did something about it," Gouge told the audience, referring to the state's new mandate that water systems must meet demand based on the worst drought on record in 100 years.
And even if reservoir efforts start today, it will be "10 years before we're able to pull water out as a resource," Gouge said.
In light of these water woes, Gouge and Minnich affirmed their record in slowing growth. The county approved 1,054 building permits in 2002, and just 430 last year, Gouge said.
Having more local industry in Carroll will ease some of the current problems, such as commuter traffic, Minnich said.
He said, with some regret, that what was once a farming community with eight small towns has transformed into "a commuter bedroom county." Zimmer struck a different chord with his emphasis on highway safety.
He drew on a recent state police and highway administration presentation showing there were slightly more traffic fatalities than murders in Maryland in 2005.
"We worry a lot about violent crime," Zimmer said. "Do we, as a society, think about things that cause just as much impact in our highway safety, in our accidents?"
Zimmer thanked his supporters for putting him in office. The opponents that Zimmer defeated in a heated commissioner race - incumbent Perry L. Jones Jr. in the Republican primary and Democrat Dennis E. Beard in the general election - both attended the address.
After the three commissioners spoke, organizers encouraged questions from the audience, although none were asked.
Following the address, the county commissioners met separately with business and nonprofit directors enrolled in the chamber's 10-month Leadership Carroll program.
The day's topic, local government, also included sessions with Mount Airy Mayor Frank Johnson and county budget director Ted Zaleski. Lorraine Fulton, the assistant superintendent of instruction for Carroll public schools, and county parks director Jeff Degitz are among those in this year's leadership program.
"This is the most valuable experience I could have," said Fulton, who used the chance to network.