The certificate from the county told Bruce Wentworth his plan was coming along fine.
So the developer thought he was set to gain approval for the seven-home subdivision that would keep his small Carroll County company busy and profitable for the next year. Then, he heard about the county commissioners' growth freeze, the one that would not only close the door to future projects but would stop a long list of others that had passed earlier stages of review.
The freeze goes into effect Tuesday - exactly one week before Wentworth's plan was scheduled to be reviewed by the planning commission for approval.
"I feel like they really shafted me on this," Wentworth, the owner of Finksburg-based Carroll Homes Inc., said yesterday. "I wouldn't have went that far and spent all that money if they hadn't given me the OK."
To his mind, the county has frozen almost $700,000 that his company can't afford to have tied up. Wentworth, 51, spent about $600,000 on the Gamber farm, a 30-acre plot of fields, forest and stream where he planned to build two-story colonials. He spent another $70,000 in taxes and fees. He said he bought the property after receiving a certificate saying his planned houses would not strain county services.
Carroll County is halting for a year all new subdivision plans covered by Carroll's adequate facility laws, which are designed to prevent residential growth from overwhelming schools, roads and the water supply. The freeze also affects 1,700 lots that have passed that review but have not gained final approval.
"This is not gonna be easy for me," Wentworth said. "This project was a gamble for me in the first place."
Wentworth is caught in the climax of a narrative that began last year, when a slate of slow-growth candidates gained control of the county government from the conservative property-rights advocates who had traditionally run things. Those candidates took the first step toward keeping their campaign promises Thursday when they imposed the freezes on significant portions of residential and commercial development in the Baltimore metropolitan area's fastest-growing county.
The measures are the most stringent growth controls applied in Carroll in the past five years, and among the toughest ever enacted in the county.
Carroll's population, about 160,000, grew by 2.8 percent between July 2001 and July 2002 - a higher rate than in any other county in the Baltimore metropolitan area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The commissioners say they worry that growth is beginning to overwhelm county schools, water systems, roads and fire stations.
With the freezes, the county joins several in the region that have implemented aggressive growth controls. Large areas of Anne Arundel and Howard counties are closed to development because of crowded schools and other inadequacies. Baltimore County strictly adheres to an urban-rural demarcation line and an agricultural zoning law that allows one house for each 20 acres.
The Carroll commissioners appeared to agonize over the decisions, saying they were concerned about people such as Wentworth. But in the end they held a hard line, saying they would be letting down the people who elected them if they did otherwise.
"If we don't do this, it'll look like we blinked when we should have made a move," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich.
Developers and land-use attorneys say the freezes are an overreaction that will choke the housing market and drive up prices. The decline in development-related fees might also leave the county short on revenues, developers say.
But to some landowners and smaller builders, the commissioners' decision is a more personal betrayal, one that many say might be answered in court.
Curtis Wasmer, 38, is a fourth-generation county resident who was hoping to build 10 houses on his 35-acre farm north of Westminster. Like Wentworth, he has a certificate saying his project would not strain county services. Like Wentworth, he's now facing a delay.
Whenever a Carroll developer wants to subdivide a property into more than three lots, the plan must first go to public works, fire and school officials who sign a certificate saying the property will not strain services. Developers have traditionally considered those certificates to be contracts that in all but a few cases guarantee projects will move forward.
"You can't have a contract that doesn't work both ways," said Wasmer. "There's no way they're going to stop me in midstream and change all the rules without a battle."
Land-use attorneys predict that the county will have a difficult time persuading judges that growth has caused enough emergencies in the county to require a drastic freeze.
Wentworth said he would rather not sue and will first appeal to the commissioners for an exception. The commissioners will accept such hardship petitions but have set no specific conditions for granting exemptions, said county planning director Steve Horn.