Wider sewer area possible

Housing proposal may spur expansion of service area

Site just outside boundary

March 04, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

In an early test of the principles laid out in Howard County's new general plan, a developer is proposing senior housing at the intersection of Marriottsville Road and Route 144 that, if approved, could result in the expansion of the county's public sewer and water area.

Columbia-based Brantly Development Corp. has applied to build 143 senior housing units on 73 acres at the northeast corner of the Marriottsville juncture - 71 of them single-family detached homes and 72 attached homes with four units per building.

The site, an open farm field, is just outside of the Planned Service Area (PSA) - the eastern part of the county that is served by public sewer and water lines. Brantly has included the possibility of septic tanks in its designs, but its first choice is to have the county extend public sewer lines to serve the site.

As a result, the proposal is drawing more attention than most applications for midsize housing developments. The line dividing the Planned Service Area from the county's Rural West is the Berlin Wall of the county's development landscape. If the county allows a breach in the boundary, slow-growth advocates say, its efforts to restrict sprawl in the western county could quickly crumble.

"This is the concern we have had - the creeping of the service area," said Dennis Luck, the Sierra Club's Howard County chairman. "It's just an inchworm process, and it takes strong community opposition to keep it from happening."

Brantly's application, to be heard by the Planning Board on Thursday, is complicated by a quirk in the Planned Service Area boundary. Since 1993, the county has spent about $13 million to link roughly 300 homes near the Brantly site to the public water system after concerns arose about well-water contamination from the nearby Alpha Ridge landfill.

Implicit in the water line expansion, say proponents of slow growth, was that the water would serve only existing homes, not future development; that is why, they say, the county didn't expand its sewer service to the area along with its water lines. But Brantly is seeking to use the water lines, as well as extend public sewer to the site.

Brantly President John Liparini said that the county's water and sewerage master plan indicates that the Alpha Ridge area could get public sewer access sometime after 2010. Since most of the area has been developed, he said, there would be little impact if the county went ahead and brought in sewer now for the proposed community.

"There's not a lot of logic to the way the boundary was drawn. This area is not in the west by any stretch of the imagination," Liparini said. "I understand what their intent was, but this property certainly ought to be served by sewer some time from now."

Brantly is not the first to urge the county to expand the service area westward to facilitate development and protect other western county residents from tainted well water. But, except for a few instances involving contaminated wells or failing septic systems, the county has held firm against such entreaties.

Howard's recently approved 10-year general plan states that expansions of the service area should be allowed only if the proposed change is consistent with the general plan and Smart Growth policies, and if the expansions make financial sense for the county.

"There is no compelling fiscal need for additional growth that justifies an expansion of the PSA boundary," the plan states, while adding, "It should be anticipated in the future there may be isolated situations where minor adjustments may be appropriate."

Whether the Brantly site is one such "isolated situation" remains to be seen. Any expansion of the service area would have to be approved by the County Council.

County Public Works Director James M. Irvin has recommended against extending public sewer to the site.

"The county deliberately made a policy decision not to provide public sewer in that area anytime in the near future," he said. "We just went through with the general plan, and the decision was made to keep the PSA as it is."

Friday, Planning and Zoning Department Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. also spoke against the proposal, saying it would be "conspicuously out of character" with Marriottsville. In addition, he cited a Health Department finding that serving the development with only a septic system would be difficult.

County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, is also opposed to the plan.

"We made a commitment that we would not support [expansion] for anything other than an unusual, rare instance ... and I certainly don't support expanding it to support high-density development," Kittleman said. "I'm not going to tell them I'm not going to listen to them, but my gut feeling is against it."

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