Water problem imperils homes

Caroline community caught in dispute over well's operation

January 08, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

JONESTOWN - Three decades ago, James and Elizabeth Lake took advantage of a Farmers Home Administration loan and bought a comfortable rancher in a new development here in one of rural Caroline County's oldest African-American communities.

They still enjoy the quiet lifestyle; James Lake likes the easy commute to his job as a supervisor at a paper products company. They raised five kids in the three-bedroom, one-bath house and long ago paid off the $16,000 mortgage.

They figured on staying for good.

Now, Lake isn't so sure. He and about 50 of his neighbors in the Nelpine Heights development say they are caught in a Catch-22 that has entangled them with the Maryland Department of the Environment, Caroline County government and the local electric company. The whole mess threatens to leave two dozen families without water.

"Most of the people here have been here long-term, and we're between a rock and a hard place," Lake says. "Everybody has a lawyer but us."

Built in the days before Caroline adopted planning and zoning rules, the two-street community came with a privately owned water supply fed by a well dug deep into the Piney Point aquifer. Each house has its own septic system, but homeowners paid the well owner modest monthly bills, guaranteeing them water.

Here's the catch, or at least one of them: The original developer isn't around anymore.

The well, a modest moneymaker at best, was bought in 1998 by an investor at a tax sale, but the new owner, Joseph F. Petrlik Jr., died last year. Since then, the well went up for sale at another tax auction that found no takers.

Petrlik's heirs, who offered to give the well to the community, along with $500 to cover expenses, say they will no longer be responsible for the well, which is housed in a shed across from Lake's house. Once Petrlik's estate is settled, which is expected by the end of the month, the well will be listed as abandoned property.

Without an owner, Choptank Electric Cooperative will have no one to pay the $35 to $45 a month power bill. Without electricity, Nelpine Heights gets no water.

"It puts us in the same situation they're in," says Robert P. Behlke, a spokesman for the utility. "We're trying to do what we can; the bill isn't much money. It looks cut and dry on paper, but it's a lot more complicated."

The Maryland Department of the Environment has ordered county government to step in, and Caroline officials have refused. The issue will eventually be settled before a state administrative law judge or maybe in court.

County officials argue that if they take over in Jonestown, it would clear the way for similar pleas from anyone with water and perhaps septic problems, and plenty of residents have similar problems in the far-flung agricultural county.

Besides, county officials say, Caroline doesn't have a water and sewer department because the only public systems are run by several small towns.

"We're not about to start getting into the water and sewer business," says Charles C. Cawley, the county administrator. "We're recommending that [residents] take over. Once they do that, the county can probably come up with some grants to help."

Residents say they weren't surprised when they were rebuffed by county officials. Lake says many remain resentful of county officials who, he says, have routinely ignored pleas for street lights, a bus stop shelter for neighborhood children and other improvements.

"We had a meeting with the commissioners in October, and they told us right up front they weren't going to be supplying public water," Lake says. "We've heard it so many times: `You people' do something for yourselves."

Lake says it's not that easy. One estimate puts the cost of paying a certified operator to run the water system, along with annual maintenance, at $10,000, money the 22 property owners say they don't have. To bring the old pump up to standard would cost another $20,000, residents have been told. Drilling private wells would cost $3,000 to $5,000 each - an option that would work only for some of the homeowners, depending on the location of their septic systems.

A mile away, the town of Preston, population 500, says it has no plans to extend service to the unincorporated community. Residents say they rejected a proposal to hook up to the town system 10 years ago because it would have required a waste-water pond to be built in Jonestown.

"This is a community that's trying to go through all the right channels; it's just that all the channels are blocked," says Suzanne Smith, a spokeswoman for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has offered to help secure legal assistance.

Residents have organized as the Jonestown Citizens Action Committee, which might offer a way to pay the electric bill and keep water flowing until more complex problems can be sorted out. Residents had talked about having the bill sent to an individual in the community, but they worried about one person having to worry about liability.

"What we're trying to do is to get nonprofit status for the citizens' group and at least pay the electric bills," says Paul Holmes, the group's president. "We need to start getting some answers. This has been hanging over our heads for too long."

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