MANCHESTER - For more than four years, officials here have pondered the future of a 102-acre tract of rolling farmland on the northern edge of town.
The tract -- a three-parcel property along Route 30 known as Black Farm -- has been the subject of an annexation debate dating to March 1986.
But the recent economic downturn and a growing realization that more and more people and businesses would have to move into town to pay for Manchester's $11 million sewage treatment plant expansion have brought consideration of Black Farm back to the forefront.
Manchester sewer bills, which increased 12 percent in July in the second increase in two years, and uncertainty about the health of the rest of the town's economy are causing considerable concern at Town Hall.
"We are looking this multimillion dollar sewage project in the face," Councilman David M. Warner said. "And unless we have some growth in town, people won't be able to believe what that could mean to their sewer bill."
Council members have been wary of annexing so large a tract into a town already faced with overcrowded roads, schools and public services. However, Manchester officials also have expressed concern that leaving the tract -- and any future development and resulting property tax revenue -- to the county could end up costing the town money.
Last month, the council received the conclusions from an eight-month, $2,145 study it had commissioned on the potential financial ramifications of annexation of the Black Farm property.
The study, conducted by the Institute for Governmental Services at the University of Maryland at College Park, concluded that annexing the Black Farm would neither rescue town finances nor cause irreparable harm in the wake of the sewage project.
While inconclusive, the 86-page study does give the council something to work from as it continues to look at Black Farm.
The study considers three proposals for the property, which is owned by the Black Farm Development Partnership, a group of county investors.
One proposal would leave the property as it is; another calls for annexation and a residential development; and a third calls for annexation and a mixed-use development.
While the study says any one of the three scenarios would leave the town's finances in good shape, only the third provides substantial relief for the town's sewage budget, which will be saddled with heavy interest payments well into the next century.
If the farm is not annexed, IGS estimates that the town's overall expenses would total $1.1 million by 1996, with revenues some $19,300 higher. Among those figures is a $41,600 deficit in the sewer fund.
A residential development on an annexed Black Farm would increase expenses by 1.1 percent, to $1.12 million; increase revenues by 2.6 percent, to $1.16 million; and leave a sewer fund deficit of $31,450.
The mixed-use proposal would raise expenses 1.3 percent, to $1.121 million; push revenues up 4 percent, to $1.173 million; and leave a sewer fund deficit of $29,000, the study indicates.
Should the third option be chosen -- and it is the most favored by town officials so far -- it would not, by itself, eliminate the need for further increases in the sewer rates, the study shows.
The council is expected to take up consideration of Black Farm again once a town master plan is in place early next year.
"What we've seen as far as plans for that property so far have been very, very sketchy," Warner said.
Black Farm Development Group attorney Charles O. Fisher Sr. could not be reached for comment.