The plan to cluster hundreds of new homes in the northeast corner of historic Doughoregan Manor and preserve the rest of the estate took a big step forward Monday night when the Howard County Council unanimously approved the extension of public water and sewer utilities to the property.
The next step is a county Zoning Board hearing scheduled for May 12, during which the board -- composed of the five council members -- will consider a zoning change for the land.
The historic estate is the only home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence still in family hands, and the descendants of Charles Carroll, the signer, have shown a fierce determination over nearly 300 years to both preserve their family home and keep the public away.
The plan is to use the millions of dollars they'll collect for preserving 500 acres of the land in the county's agricultural preservation program and from the development to restore the family mansion and several dozen outbuildings and keep the property in family hands for generations to come. If it fails, the alternative is suburban sprawl -- large homes built throughout the estate on wells and septic systems. County planners, public works and school officials have supported the Carrolls' concept.
"The expansion request, in my opinion, meets the General Plan criteria," said council chairwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who represents the area Doughoregan occupies.
"It's important to at least continue the conversation," east Columbia Democrat Calvin Ball said about his vote.
The utility extension comes as an amendment to the county's General Plan.
The council vote Monday night came only after adoption of a raft of amendments that sought to address some worries expressed by nearby residents of the farm in western Ellicott City.
Fulton Republican Greg Fox said the amendments that he helped craft were key to his support. They sought to guarantee that all the pieces of the complex deal will be followed in a developers rights and responsibilities agreement that will be negotiated between the county and the Carroll family between now and January.
"Without the DRRA, this will all revert back," Fox said.
Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, said the key for her was permanent preservation of hundreds of acres of farmland that can continue producing food as farm land grows more scarce.
"Once we grow houses on it, it will never grow food," she observed.
The approval of water and sewer service for 221 acres in Doughoregan's northeast corner is vital to the Carroll family's plans to develop 325 detached homes there while preserving the rest of the 892-acre estate. A 34-acre portion of the development site would be given to Howard County government to expand Kiwanis-Wallas Park.
Area residents have mounted a vociferous protest, complaining that plans to treat wastewater on the site and increasing traffic congestion will be major problems if the project is approved.
Watson said she is also worried about sewage treatment, but said it is unfair to burden the Carrolls with treating and reusing wastewater when other large developers aren't being asked to do the same thing.
"I have a lot of concerns about sewage and won't support a sewage treatment plant" on the estate, she said, pointing out that the Carrolls' current plans would produce less than half the sewage of the original plan to build 2,000 apartments for an Erickson retirement village. The recession killed that idea.
Watson said the county should develop a more "systemic" approach to reusing wastewater to keep nutrients out of tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay, though the Carrolls should pay for "any impact" their project has on the county's only wastewater treatment plant in Savage.
Joseph Rutter, the Carrolls' representative at the meeting, said later he was pleased at the vote.
"Obviously, it's positive that the General Plan amendment was approved," he said. "They appeared to embrace all the concepts in the (Carrolls') master plan."
Serious talks on the DRRA should begin within a week, Rutter said.
After the vote, several area residents said the changes helped, but did not dissolve their concerns.
"I still think it went too fast," Harry Carnes said. "There are still a lot of concerns."
Said Victor A. Illenda, president of the Chateau Ridge Lake Community Association: "I think it was a foregone conclusion that they were going to approve it, but I'm glad to hear they are trying to protect some of our interests."
The changes to the bill hold the Carrolls to the promises they've made to preserve their farmland, to spend the money they get to do the restoration work, to keep the density of new homes at promised levels, and to "evaluate alternatives" for treating or reusing wastewater to keep nutrients out of the county's plant on the Little Patuxent River. It gives the family 215 days from the day the bill becomes law to craft a DRRA pact with the county. That takes the process to January, since bills take effect 60 days after they are approved by the council and signed by the county executive.
"We want to give this process time and not make it so rushed," Watson said.