Testing the waters at Liberty Reservoir


November 19, 2000|By MIKE BURNS

WHEN the county commissioners meet tomorrow to adopt the long awaited master plan and to rezone some 580 acres for industrial use, they'll be responding to public demand.

Trouble is, they're hearing onlypart of the message. Only the part they choose to hear.

Yes, the county needs more industrial development and more available land to offer prospective industry. The county's 12 percent industrial base is by far the lowest in the metro area, too low to keep residential property taxes in check given the demand for adequate public facilities and services.

Economic development officials want another 1,000 acres of available industrial land to pitch to prospects.

Yes, Carroll needs a new comprehensive land-use plan with which to satisfactorily manage growth, not a frayed map that is more than 35 years old and ignores the modern pressures of suburban bedroom subdivisions.

However, this board of commissioners and the previous board of commissioners -- common element, Donald Dell -- sat for more than two years on a comprehensive overhaul of the master plan that involved the hard work and good faith of many citizens and county staff members.

The current board, dominated by Mr. Dell and his former campaign treasurer, recently found the time to glean the proposed document and then rejected it as too restrictive of their imperial authority. The master plan was subsequently amended by a compliant (disgusted?) county planning commission to meet their wishes. Firm guidelines and strategies became mere suggestions.

That's the master plan that Mr. Dell and his ideological soulmate Robin Frazier will dutifully adopt.

While there are lots of good points in the plan, they need to be scrupulously recognized, and not just waved at while going full speed ahead on development and converting farmland into subdivisions.

Both developer and conservationist deserve a firm, reliable land use plan for directing the county's future.

As for creating more industrial-zoned land, the problem is where to place new industry. The location has to be attractive to potential new business and compatible with existing uses and residents. And it has to take into account necessary environmental considerations.

That's a dilemma for Carroll. The most attractive land for potential new industry is in the east, near main roads and public services and facilities.

Some of the choicest parcels available for industrial rezoning are in the watershed area of Liberty Reservoir, which Carroll has pledged to protect from pollution. After all, the 45 billion-gallon lake serves 1.8 million customers in the Baltimore metropolitan area, including over 20,000 in Carroll.

Yet most of the reservoir watershed's 9,200 acres lie inside Carroll County, in five of the county's nine planned growth regions, including the Finksburg, Eldersburg and Sykesville areas.

Baltimore City, which owns the reservoir, and Baltimore County also share the responsibility for protecting this major water supply, through a 1979 agreement that is renewed periodically.

Carroll commissioners refuse to renew this time because they don't want to be prohibited from rezoning land in the watershed for industrial development.

Baltimore and Baltimore County leaders tell Carroll to go develop industrial land somewhere else. Easy for them to say, since they've got much larger, long established bases of industrial development.

Despite all that, Carroll's leaders have to ask themselves whether it's responsible to rezone watershed land simply because they have the legal right to do so (and because they can spite their seemingly arrogant neighbors).

No matter who controls the land, the harm will be done to the reservoir, the watershed and the drinking water if the area is not sufficiently protected.

Some types of light industry may well be tolerated within the watershed buffers, with strict safeguards. But those safeguards must go beyond what the Carroll commissioners propose: that any new development will meet state and local environmental laws.

Problem is, once you get zoning for the land, lawyers will squeeze in just about anything remotely covered by the code.

That's one reason that Carroll has so little industrial-zoned land now, about 1,000 acres by latest count. Land that was previously zoned for industry was instead used for retail development, which is permitted by code.

Those were the days, not too long ago, when Carroll wasn't serious about industrial development. Build a new fast-food restaurant and call it economic progress.

And when industry didn't show up by itself, it was often easier to let the land be used for retail.

Sykesville held out for many disappointing years before finally changing the Raincliffe property from industrial zoning to residential subdivision last year. Just because it's zoned industrial doesn't mean that's a place where new industry wants to locate.

Julia Gouge, who's usually in the minority of the three commissioners, sensibly suggests rezoning industrial land outside the watershed. But that wouldn't be enough to build a strong development portfolio.

Maybe a couple (of six) parcels in the Liberty Reservoir area might be rezoned as a compromise. That would test the waters, so to speak, but not degrade them.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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