State eases water limits

Carwashes must cut hours, reduce use by 10% to reopen

Trying to clarify rules

Interpretations differ

enforcement varies across jurisdictions

August 08, 1999|By Dan Thanh Dang and Lynn Anderson | Dan Thanh Dang and Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Maryland officials amended the state's 3-day-old water restrictions yesterday to permit the reopening of commercial carwashes, as thousands of callers inundated the drought hot line amid growing confusion over what is allowed under the ban.

The carwash variance was approved to help the industry avoid any extraordinary economic hardship, state officials said. In the agreement between the state and the MidAtlantic Carwash Association, carwashes that do not recycle at least 80 percent of their water must reduce hours of operation and cut back consumption by 10 percent to open.

At the same time, state and local officials were scrambling to clarify discrepancies in information already distributed about water restrictions. Marylanders are finding broad inconsistencies in how the regulations are interpreted and enforced -- if at all -- in jurisdictions across the state.

"We are trying to get the correct information out," said J. L. Hearn, the Maryland Department of Environment's director of water management, acknowledging the problem. "It is a daunting task."

State officials directed residents with questions to the Department of Environment's Web site and its drought hot line. Hearn said the state will also mail out informational packages to jurisdictions across the state tomorrow to clear up any misunderstandings.

Since Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced the restrictions in an executive order Wednesday, the carwash industry has complained of unfair treatment and contradictorymessages.

Initially, carwashes that recycled at least 80 percent of their water were exempted from the restrictions, which forced many carwashes to close. The regulations, however, also permitted businesses that used less than 10,000 gallons of water a day to remain open, if they reduced consumption by 10 percent.

But a lobbyist for the industry, Carolyn T. Burridge, said that the average carwash uses less than 5,000 gallons of water a day, which should allow most carwashes to remain open.

"The industry has been in a state of confusion since the emergency order came out on Wednesday. It's been rather chaotic," said Burridge, who represents 500 businesses and 5,000 employees in the state. "This means relief with a capital R."

To comply with the amended regulations, commercial carwashes that don't recycle must reduce their hours of operation and close every Tuesday. They must also make operational changes such as changing nozzle sizes to use less water. Finally, they must restrict some services such as discontinuing undercarriage washes, Hearn said.

"We'll be able to make payroll and pay the mortgage next month," said Charles Skord, who owns two Econo Wash businesses in Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties. "We might have had to shut down otherwise."

Widespread confusion

While the amendment may ease worries for carwash owners, others across the state are still confounded.

That was the case at a construction site in North Baltimore yesterday morning. The sight of two men power spraying new brick on a parking garage in the 3900 block of Keswick Road had homeowner Jon Sampson's blood boiling.

When Sampson called the Baltimore Police Department's nonemergency number twice to complain, they referred him to the Department of Public Works.

"They told me they couldn't do anything until Monday," 56-year-old Sampson groused. "So I said, `Does that mean I can wash my car before then?' It's just not fair.

"I can't even wash my car, and they're out there hosing down a parking garage," grumbled Sampson, surveying the work at Zurich Personal Insurance company's garage. "I mean, what's wrong with this picture?"

An official answering the state's drought hot line yesterday said power spraying buildings was strictly prohibited.

And a check of the state's Web site clearly showed that washing paved or outdoor surfaces -- including buildings -- is "not allowed."

But Hearn later said power spraying of buildings was allowed -- or else it would pose an undue hardship on businesses that provided that service.

Many businesses weren't waiting around for officials to decide which answer is correct.

"We were told that as long as you use less than 10,000 gallons a day, it's OK," said one of the men power spraying at the Keswick Road site who would only identify himself as Roy.

"We only use about 500 or 600," said the employee of Miller Wagman Inc., the York, Pa., company on the Zurich job. "No one came by to shut us down."

That could be because law enforcement officials across the state were also struggling to answer those same types of questions, as people called in to complain about violators.

In Westminster, Maryland State Police cited a homeowner who used a pressure washer to clean his deck.

That's a violation, explained Sgt. David Warner, a duty officer for the Westminster barracks.

But a state official at the dought hot line said washing decks is allowed.

Enforcement delayed

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