Water dispute heads to court

Residents' suit says county plans to fund new plant illegally

November 01, 2001|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

In what could be the first of many legal battles over the proposed water treatment plant at Piney Run Lake, a group of Carroll residents is expected to file a complaint in Carroll Circuit Court today questioning the legality of using water fees to pay for the $14 million project.

"This is just the first shot over the bow," said Jeannie Nichols, a Sykesville councilwoman who is one of six plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which will be filed by attorneys from a prominent Baltimore firm, Hogan and Hartson. "We don't want to pay to bring a water system on for new development."

Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier have authorized about $1 million on the project, money that went for plant design and an access road, despite rising public opposition and lack of support from the state. The Maryland Department of the Environment repeatedly has told the county it will not issue a construction permit for the plant and has refused to review preliminary construction plans.

"If these fees are illegal or unconstitutional, we will do something else," Dell said. "If the court says we are wrong, we won't challenge it."

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge opposes the project and has voted against every related expense.

The residents have hired attorneys who will ask for a constitutional review to determine the legality of the county's new water maintenance fee that they must pay to use the public water system. The fee, which is based on a property's road frontage, is in addition to quarterly water and sewer bills and property taxes. About 7,000 homes and businesses in Eldersburg and Sykesville are affected.

The commissioners just enacted the fee, which they say will pay for maintenance of the public water system in South Carroll, the county's most populous area and one that suffers from seasonal water shortages.

"We are being socked with a maintenance fee that is really not a maintenance fee," Nichols said. "There has been virtually no public discussion on this issue, no studies and no consideration of alternatives. This is not a fair assessment. With this suit, we have found something legal we can do to fight this issue."

State law permits maintenance fees on utilities, as long as they go toward upkeep of the existing system. Residents claim their tax dollars will pay for the Piney Run plant. Many are concerned that a new plant will spur more development in an area coping with crowded schools and roads and inadequate services.

"This money is going to be used for a capital improvement, and that is against state law," said Nimrod Davis, vice chairman of Freedom Area Citizens Council, an unofficial liaison between the South Carroll community and county government. "I don't think we should pay fees for new houses. The law says the county can't charge old residents for new stuff."

Dell said he remains committed to the Piney Run project as the only way to augment the water supply in South Carroll.

"These people want water, but they don't want us to give them water," Dell said. "One day we might find ourselves in court over this issue, but they will find themselves without water."

He approved the fees on the advice of the county legal staff and its comptroller, he said.

Jerry Ryan, who joins Davis and Nichols in the suit, helped fund it with a $5,000 initial contribution. He is a developer who lives in Westminster but does not work in Carroll.

"South Carroll has been working on these issues for years and they never go away," he said. "This complaint is our first foot in the boat and it's sturdy and strong one."

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