Carroll judge weighs merits of water fee lawsuit

Residents sue county over use of utility funds

May 26, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

South Carroll residents locked in a legal battle with the county over utility maintenance fees must wait for a Circuit Court judge to rule on the validity of their lawsuit, which argues that the money cannot be used to finance a $16 million water treatment plant on Piney Run Lake in Sykesville.

Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. said Friday that he would review the constitutionality of the fees - which the county has begun to phase in for residents in Eldersburg and Sykesville - and reply to the arguments in writing.

Ralph S. Tyler, a Baltimore attorney representing a group of South Carroll residents, argued that using maintenance fees to pay for a new plant violates state law.

The county ordinance allows collection of fees for upkeep and maintenance of the existing system, and the county has collected the fees periodically.

Residents pay the fee, which is based on a property's road frontage, in addition to quarterly water and sewer bills and property taxes. State law permits such fees.

While they are willing to fund maintenance and improvements to the 30-year-old Freedom water treatment plant, which supplies water for about 7,000 homes and businesses in Sykesville and Eldersburg, many residents strongly oppose construction of a second plant.

Two of the three county commissioners have said the Piney Run plant is vital to easing persistent water shortages.

The county has put upgrades to the Freedom plant on hold while it moves forward with the Piney Run project - despite the lack of a state construction permit and mounting opposition from residents.

"We allege this [maintenance] has not been done and is not being done," Tyler said.

Daniel Karp, an attorney representing the county, asked Burns to dismiss the lawsuit, which he called baseless and vague.

"The statute is broad enough that money can be raised to build new [facilities]," he said. "This is a very specific challenge to the legality of the ordinance."

Residents claim their tax dollars will pay for the Piney Run plant and spur more development in what is already the county's most populous area. South Carroll roads and schools are crowded, and its water system is operating at near-capacity.

The county recently called a halt to new building permits in the area until more water is available.

Tyler called for a constitutional review of the county fee structure. He said the residents were thwarted in their attempts to retrieve information from the county.

The county, which has spent more than $2 million on the Piney Run project, was not forthcoming with information, residents said.

"Citizens have the right to know where their money is going when they send in those checks," said Jeannie Nichols, a Sykesville councilwoman and a candidate for county commissioner who is participating in the lawsuit.

"We should not have to file a lawsuit to get information."

After the brief proceedings, Tyler said, "It will be up to the judge to decide if we go forward."

Nimrod Davis, who is among the residents who filed the lawsuit, said, "The county is just trying to push something on people that it has no right to do. If the county uses the maintenance fees for new work, it will be in violation of state law."

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