Lawsuit filed over water fees in Carroll

Plaintiffs say funding for Piney Run water treatment plant at issue

November 02, 2001|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

In a move the South Carroll community hopes will derail the proposed water treatment plant at Piney Run Lake, several residents filed a suit in Carroll Circuit Court yesterday challenging newly enacted water fees - money the commissioners will use to help fund the $14 million project.

About 15 residents, many of them plaintiffs in the case, gathered on the courthouse steps in Westminster in a show of support for the suit, which challenges the authority of the county to charge residents maintenance fees that will be used to finance the new plant.

"The central issue is whether the fees are being used for a lawful purpose," said Ralph S. Tyler, an attorney with Hogan & Hartson LLP, a law firm based in Washington that represents the residents. "The county cannot collect these fees except for maintenance."

State law allows each county to collect fees to maintain water and sewer systems, but the suit "asserts this is a tax enacted and funds generated for purposes other than maintenance," Tyler said yesterday.

Eugene C. Curfman, county comptroller, held several public hearings on the new fees and repeatedly told residents that one-third of the money collected would go to construction of the Piney Run plant.

"A portion of the maintenance fees will go to the plant because the plant is needed to meet peak demand, and this is a benefit to everybody," Curfman said. "Therefore, everybody should pay."

Curfman said the county did not mislead residents about how it would spend the fees. "This is a decision that a judge should make as to interpretation," he said.

Commissioner Donald I. Dell said he trusts Curfman and the county's attorneys. "If this is illegal or unconstitutional, we will try something else. I am still committed to Piney Run," Dell said.

Many who gathered at the courthouse criticized Dell and Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier, who have authorized about $1 million in expenditures for the plant, despite rising public opposition and a lack of state support.

"These two are running roughshod over the voters," said Albert Selby of Sykesville. "This is one way to stop them."

The Maryland Department of the Environment has said it will not issue a construction permit for the plant and has refused to review the county's preliminary plan.

Pat Perkins of Sykesville did much of the research that led to the lawsuit. "I was irritated that the county was mixing money for the new plant with maintenance," she said.

Jeannie M. Nichols, a Sykesville councilwoman and a plaintiff in the suit, added, "Government exists to serve the people. It is not the other way around. This lawsuit is the only way to turn things around."

Plans call for a plant that can treat about 3 million gallons of water drawn daily from the 2-billion- gallon lake. Selby, 82, has lived by the stream that feeds Piney Run most of his life and insists the lake cannot handle the proposed daily draw.

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge has consistently voted against the Piney Run plant and all expenses associated with it. She favors an expansion of the county plant at Liberty Reservoir and the construction of several wells.

South Carroll suffers from seasonal water shortages and officials are predicting restrictions on water use starting next spring. Dell and Frazier see the Piney Run plant as the means to ease water woes in the county's most populous area. Residents prefer Gouge's plan and have pushed for the wells.

"We are facing five or six years of critical water shortages, even if the plant gets built," said Nichols. "The wells could give us years of grace."

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