February 27, 2003

IN ELDERSBURG this week, the Carroll County commissioners held a ceremony at which they reaffirmed the county's intent to better control rampaging development in its share of the watershed of Baltimore's Liberty Reservoir.

A bit of pomp was certainly in order, for that re-signing - loudly resisted by two sets of county commissioners for seven years - was itself a watershed, so to speak, in this region's often losing fight against sprawl.

It also was very much a credit to Julia Walsh Gouge, who's served as a county commissioner off and on since 1986 and who in recent years has been a lonely voice on that body for controlling Carroll's growth.

And it was a credit to Carroll voters who last fall kicked out of office the other two county commissioners, who had refused to sign the watershed agreement in the name of protecting the county's land-use rights.

Under their majority rule the last four years, the two had so allowed suburbia to eat into Carroll's landscape - particularly its southeast corner in Liberty's watershed - that Baltimore cut off talks on how to provide for the county's growing water needs from the reservoir. Similarly, the state wouldn't let the county tap wells in Sykesville.

The result: Even before last summer's drought, many Carroll areas risked running low on water. Now the city is happily talking about how it can help the county meet some of its long-term needs with Liberty's water, and, more immediately, state approval of those Sykesville wells is expected.

But the political revolution taking place in Carroll these days goes far beyond reaffirming the 19-year-old watershed agreement with the city and Baltimore County.

From their first days in office last December, Ms. Gouge and the two first-time commissioners, Perry L. Jones Jr. and Dean L. Minnich, have been living up to campaign promises - scrapping some of their predecessors' bad land-use decisions, most notably plans to build a treatment plant to tap Piney Run Lake, the heart of the county's largest park.

But reshaping land use in Carroll - to protect the county's remaining open land - is a tough, long-term proposition. The new commission inherited already-approved plans for 2,000 new homes. The county remains the region's leader in projected development on rural land outside its designated growth areas.

Initial steps taken by this new set of county commissioners benefit not only their constituents but the entire region - particularly Baltimore, which has been hollowed out by a four-decade march to suburbia in Carroll and elsewhere. Their efforts to use Carroll's land more wisely deserve the region's full support - and thanks.

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