Pact signing is watershed event for region

Carroll agrees to shield Liberty Reservoir areas

February 25, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Perhaps they should have released a flock of doves.

The gesture would have provided a fitting ending for the political love-in that took place yesterday in the humble auditorium of a Carroll County church, where leaders of three Baltimore-area jurisdictions gathered to sign away their differences.

They were there to reaffirm the Reservoir Watershed Management Agreement. But really, they had gathered to cement a treaty that would end nearly a decade of acrimony between Carroll County and its neighbors in Baltimore and Baltimore County.

"If we had just done this quietly, it might have looked like we were still wondering if doing this was the right thing," said four-term Carroll Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "But by having a ceremony, we're showing that regional unity is not just something we talk about. We're in this to protect one another."

By agreeing to sign the two-page document after years of recalcitrance by previous boards of commissioners, Gouge, who had been outvoted on the issue in the past, and two newly elected Carroll commissioners were the stars at yesterday's signing at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in Eldersburg.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said relations between the city and Carroll County had improved immediately after the current members of Carroll's board of commissioners swept in as a reform slate last fall.

`All in this together'

"You can just tell this is a group that represents the best interests of the people in Carroll County, because they understand we're all in this together as a region," the mayor said. "It's just such a marked difference in being able to coordinate and cooperate with this group as compared to the past."

With yesterday's signing, the commissioners renewed a promise originally made by Carroll County in 1984 to shield watershed areas from rampant development. The city and surrounding counties have periodically reaffirmed the protection agreement over the past 19 years.

But about eight years ago, Carroll's commissioners refused to endorse the document, saying it infringed on their land-use authority. The Liberty watershed covers more than one-third of the county and includes five of its planned growth areas.

Officials from surrounding jurisdictions and the state criticized the commissioners' rejection of the agreement as an effort to encourage development in the watershed. They made it plain that if the commissioners would not sign the agreement, they would not help Carroll County meet its growing water needs.

The city cut off negotiations to expand a treatment plant on Liberty Reservoir. The state, which feuded with Carroll County over a variety of land-use issues, refused to issue a construction permit for a proposed $16 million treatment plant on Piney Run Lake and said the commissioners must sign the agreement to win approval for a series of wells in South Carroll.

Two terms' worth of commissioners refused to back down, even though Gouge and others in Carroll said the county should sign the agreement. During last year's commissioner campaigns, reformers called for the pact to be renewed and for friendlier relations with other governments. Incumbents Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier were trounced in the Republican primary by voters ready for change.

On their second day in office, Gouge and Commissioners Perry L. Jones Jr. and Dean L. Minnich voted unanimously to sign the watershed agreement. At the same time, the board scrapped the Piney Run plant and announced it would seek state permission to begin using the South Carroll wells. State officials quickly said they would help the county get the wells on line after the commissioners signed the protection agreement.

The new era of cooperation continued yesterday with the formal signing of the agreement, arranged by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, which includes representatives from all three jurisdictions.

Gouge drew the biggest ovations and most fawning praise of the day for having endured years of fighting between her former colleagues and officials from surrounding counties.

"Julia Gouge has been a consistent leader on this, and I know she considers this to be her day, and she has earned it," said Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., setting off a loud round of applause from an audience full of Carroll activists.

Those activists, many from South Carroll, had worked hard to fight Piney Run and push out Dell and Frazier. They cheered, laughed and crowded around to snap pictures as their leaders shook hands with Smith and O'Malley.

A long time coming

Many said the day went beyond mere ceremony, culminating years spent learning issues, rallying against decisions they did not favor, supporting new slates of candidates and keeping water concerns in the public eye.

"The pragmatist in me wondered if this day would ever come, but here we are," said Neil Ridgely, who ran unsuccessfully for commissioner on a slow-growth platform and was later hired to be Carroll's new zoning enforcer.

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