A half-year of tense relations between Hampstead and county officials had just begun to ease in January, but the rancor resurfaced last week -- again over the issue of economic development around the North Carroll town.
Town officials say the county is prematurely giving away so much sewer capacity to Sweetheart Cup Co. that it will hinder development of the North Carroll Business Park planned on Route 482.
County commissioners say Hampstead is jumping the gun -- town officials should trust the county to provide for economic growth at both Sweetheart, where the company is building a huge distribution center and plans a manufacturing plant, and the North Carroll Business Park, where development is on hold until an environmental study is completed.
But both sides said they don't think the latest volleys do lasting damage to the relationship they are rebuilding, and they don't expect it to enter other areas, such as the fate of the former Hampstead Elementary School. The town is pressing the county to give it the building, but the commissioners have yet to address the matter.
"You try and keep personalities out of it -- we're trying to deal with it on a professional level," said Mayor Christopher M. Nevin, whose letter protesting the sewer change was nonetheless characterized as an "attack" by Commissioner Donald I. Dell at a public hearing Wednesday.
By Thursday, Dell said he was ready to move on.
"It's not the first time it's happened," Dell said, and it probably won't be the last. He said officials from Carroll's other towns -- not just Hampstead -- have occasionally criticized county decisions.
Nevin said he was disappointed to learn of the sewer decision by letter, when the commissioners and their staff had an opportunity to bring it up during a rare meeting with the Town Council on Jan. 18. The meeting was part of an effort by the commissioners to improve communication with all towns and cities.
Councilman Haven Shoemaker said he and most council members share Nevin's frustration with the sewer decision.
"It's something we probably anticipated, but it's also something they could have been more upfront about," Shoemaker said, especially during the meeting Jan. 18.
Nevin said communication problems with the county mostly dealwith economic development.
He said other county departments have been open and cooperative. But when it comes to economic development, the town receives minimal information and notice.
Still, Dell said, the town's protests over the sewer change were "out of line."
"The commissioners get blamed," Dell said.
Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier said town officials don't take into account that the county is looking at other options for sewer service for Sweetheart Cup Co., including an existing wastewater treatment plant for Black & Decker Corp.
"We certainly didn't overlook [North Carroll Business Park]," Frazier said. "But right now, the priority is [the Sweetheart Cup] property, because that's where we have activity. We take what we can get, when we can get it."
North Carroll Business Park development is on hold until the state completes a study on a nearby bog turtle habitat. The town voted to put a moratorium on development at the site until the study is completed.
Nevin said the county should wait before committing to public sewer service for Sweetheart Cup, especially in light of a federal judge's recent decision that Carroll's wastewater treatment plant outside of Hampstead is polluting the waters of the Piney Run. The county is appealing the decision.
The plant is about 45,000 gallons away from its capacity of 900,000 gallons a day. If Sweetheart Cup builds a manufacturing plant next to the distribution center under construction, it could generate as much as 50,000 gallons of wastewater a day, according to county officials.
If Sweetheart Cup takes advantage of that capacity, Hampstead wouldn't be able to lure business to the industrial park planned within its town limits -- prohibiting the town from gaining significant tax revenue.
Since September, when Sweetheart Cup announced it would build a 1.034 million-square-foot distribution plant south of the Hampstead line, town officials have criticized the county for not working with them as the deal was being orchestrated by the county's economic development director, Jack Lyburn.
At about the same time, town officials, said the county discouraged the U.S. Postal Service from locating its new post office at the former Hampstead Elementary, although postal officials said they determined on their own that the site was inadequate.
By winter, relations were strained, although the meeting Jan. 18 between the council and commissioners seemed to lead to consensus on some issues, such as improvements to a busy section of Route 30 and a joint commitment to having Sweetheart Cup donate land toward a bypass as a condition for the county's approval of the company's second phase -- a manufacturing plant near the distribution center.
Dell and Frazier said the recent eruption won't affect other Hampstead issues. Both said they would be willing to give the former elementary school to the town, although Dell said he would like to know more about plans for the building.
Commissioner President Julia Walsh Gouge has said she favors giving the school building to the town.
The commissioners said they haven't had a chance to draw up formal plans for the transfer. Such an agreement, they have said, is likely to include some conditions, such as preserving the facade even if the rest of the building has deteriorated beyond repair, and keeping the ball fields behind the building.
Nevin said he and the council want to seek bids from developers, but that he can't put out a request for proposals until the town owns the building, which is used for storage and office space by the county schools.