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Challenges confront growing county

The Baltimore Sun

Carroll County hopes for more residential and industrial development around its cities and towns, but the hot housing market of recent years has cooled. A water deficit based on new state environmental regulations has also put the brakes on new home construction.

Growth now depends on the county's ability to secure more water and recover revenues that slumped because of the drop in real estate transactions.

In recent years, the county's population has swelled with newcomers lured by residential development, quality schools, suburban amenities and rural landscapes. The county of 170,000 residents has gained 20,000 people since 2000. Property taxes, boosted by increased assessments, drive county revenue, providing nearly half of the funds ($155 million) in the county's proposed operating budget next year.

"There's a lot of reasons why Carroll County will be a place where people continue to move," county budget director Ted Zaleski said during a recent meeting.

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said that growth restrictions enacted by the last board are now paying off.

"If there had been no building moratorium a number of years ago, we would have had a glut of new houses on the market," Gouge said. "We don't have that many new houses sitting there. Our people have really built to meet the buyers' needs."

Under the new board of commissioners, Carroll County is overhauling its comprehensive "Pathways" plan for the first time since 2000. Citizens have gathered for meetings around the county this spring to share their opinions on the emerging blueprint.

A draft comprehensive plan will be released this summer and adopted late this year or early next year, county planning director Steven C. Horn said. He said the draft should emphasize county priorities such as agricultural land preservation, clustering growth around municipalities and the need to develop regional water resources.

Two long-planned regional reservoirs, at Union Mills and Gillis Falls, would take 10 years to complete but could suffice for future demands. Unreliable groundwater wells, on which Carroll depends, threaten to push well and septic development farther into the countryside.

In the county seat of Westminster, where a water deficit shut down all development for more than six months, the Union Mills source is seen as a necessity.

"It's the primary resource that is going to have to be there," Westminster Mayor Thomas K. Ferguson said. "We cannot continue to rely on groundwater."

Zimmer said new state water restrictions might also help the county gain approval to build the Gillis Falls site near Mount Airy.

In addition to water supply, county officials are grappling with how to manage the growing population's trash. Currently, about 90 percent of Carroll's solid waste is trucked to Virginia and buried there.

Carroll County could have 50,000 more residents and 40,000 new local jobs by 2030, according to a recent economic development study. But the county must first spend more than $150 million to construct water and sewer connections to develop more industrial and commercial zones, according to a consultant's report.

As the population grows, so do concerns about public safety. Maryland State Police officials have said they can no longer expand the county's resident trooper program, which serves as Carroll's local police force.

"We're the only county in the country that has a contract with the state police to do their policing functions," said Col. Robert L. Keefer, chief deputy of the Carroll County Sheriff's Office.

Carroll Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning hopes to expand his department to fill that role, but Gouge wants to look into the possibility of creating a local police department with a chief appointed by the commissioners.

The county's Carroll Community College has also been among the fastest-growing community colleges in the state.

More stringent state water regulations, a new administration in Annapolis and declining budget revenues, combined with increased capital needs, face the board of commissioners as they vote on their budget this spring, Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said.

"There are a lot of things that this board of commissioners will be dealing with over the next three years," he said.

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