Carroll's in the right in dispute on watershed


September 21, 1997|By MIKE BURNS

COULD THIS be called a watershed event in regional government cooperation?

Officials of Baltimore County and Baltimore City are insisting that the "conservation" and "agricultural" zoning for land around Liberty Reservoir be retained by Carroll County, per a 13-year-old agreement.

Rezoning any portion of the watershed for commercial or industrial use would threaten the reservoir, the source of drinking water for 1.6 million people in the metropolitan Baltimore region, they say.

Everyone wants clean, abundant supplies of potable water. No one wants to foul the pool, no matter who owns it. In this case, the owner is Baltimore City, which provides water to other jurisdictions, including Carroll and Baltimore counties. The city's reservoirs -- Liberty, Prettyboy and Loch Raven -- all lie outside its borders.

So when the Carroll Economic Development Commission proposed rezoning about 500 acres of land near Reese for future industrial development, red flags went up in Towson and on Holliday Street.

The proposed rezoning area lies within the Liberty watershed. And the watershed management agreement states that farm and conservation zones in the watershed "should be maintained."

Whether that phrasing is an irrevocable commitment or a subjunctive intent may well be decided by an army of lawyers. But the Carroll County commissioners want to change the wording, inserting an escape clause, to avoid a legal battle.

Indignant and insulting

Political rhetoric on all sides has been impassioned, indignant, even insulting; hardly the basis for reasoned compromise.

Huffed Baltimore County's Michael H. Davis: "Why didn't [Carroll] work to get its land industrialized 20 years ago? This is not 'smart growth.' "

"I would oppose any rezoning for anything now zoned conservation or agricultural within a square mile of the Liberty Reservoir," declared the city's public works head, George F. Balog.

Carroll Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown was at no loss for blunt words, either: "Why should Carroll County have its hands tied by a county and city that already have a 20 percent industrial base and speak so cavalierly? We can have good development and do it right."

Carroll's industrial tax base is less than 10 percent; growing that base is a major objective.

Much of Carroll's current employment-zoned land is in poor locations. The county has been trumped repeatedly by other metro jurisdictions in attracting new industry, a recent development consultant's report points out.

Industrial development depends on major highways, and on proximity to Baltimore transportation terminals. In Carroll, those kinds of sites seem to fall within the reservoir watershed protection areas.

Mr. Brown is correct that the right type of industry (high-tech, light) can operate without harmful effect in the watershed. He's also right in standing up to the two biggest bullies of the metro area. For the leadership of Baltimore city and county, regional cooperation is typically a one-way street.

There are other factors involved in Carroll's plan to increase its stock of industrial land to woo potential clients. Careful consideration of these might lead to more temperate resolution.

Most of the 471 acres proposed for industrial rezoning are far from untouched open space. They are located hard by the closed state auto emissions test station, and across from the old Telemecanique Inc. electrical controls plant that shut down four years ago (and left a potential ground water pollution problem that scared the school board out of relocating there).

Much of this acreage is not even within the normally defined watershed or buffer. And 280 acres of the total is zoned for agriculture: How would the reservoir management consortium like to see some mega-poultry ranches or cattle feed lots there instead?

Remember that the county's intention, still requiring approval of the three commissioners, is not to develop the industrial site right away but to use it 10 years down the road. That should be ample time to decide how to best fit in new industry on the property. (Moving to rezone now is consistent with the current comprehensive revision of Carroll's master plan for land use.)

Carroll's contribution

Another point: While other metro counties were hot in pursuit of new business and industry in recent decades, Carroll was leading the way in preserving agricultural land as a regional open space amenity. Lack of county foresight and aggressiveness played a major role in that choice, but so did the public will to remain an agricultural county.

Now that priorities have changed, Carroll should not be enchained by an accord that blocks appropriate economic development in its area of greatest potential. Other hurdles to development there exist. But the sanctimonious screed of the two Baltimores should be considered water under the bridge.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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