Talk of the town: sewage

Centreville: A building permit moratorium and a criminal investigation into pollution at a local treatment plant have shaken the close-knit residents.

April 22, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CENTREVILLE -- The sign says, "Welcome to Centreville. A town with a past and a future." But it's the present that seems to be putting this Eastern Shore community to the test.

Already grappling with a surge of development that is altering the landscape of the 210-year-old Queen Anne's County seat, a widening probe of pollution at the local sewage treatment plant and allegations of lax oversight by the three-member Town Council have become the talk of the town.

A criminal investigation, not to mention the news media scrutiny, seems out of sync in a place where parking meters still take nickels and phone numbers are given in four digits because pretty much everybody has a 758 exchange.

Town Hall sits on a sedate block of brick Victorian office buildings on a street called Lawyers Row, overlooking the lawn of the oldest continuously used courthouse in the nation.

A brass bell chimes on the hour, occasionally competing with the wail of a siren from the Goodwill Volunteer Fire Company a block away.

"We don't have six degrees of separation," says Town Clerk Deana Ashley. "Here, it's only one or two degrees. Everybody knows everybody."

In a tumultuous few weeks, residents have been shaken as investigators from the Maryland Department of the Environment and the attorney general's Environmental Crimes Unit have poked around the treatment plant and interviewed local officials about allegations that the town turned a blind eye as raw sewage routinely poured into a Chester River tributary.

At the polls, Town Council President Michael Whitehill, who holds a top position in a land engineering firm, was ousted from office by a slow-growth candidate. Mary McCarthy, who won the seat by two votes, vows to keep a closer eye on town business.

McCarthy, new council President Norman Pinder and Vice President Donna Turner fired the longtime town manager when news reports revealed a pattern of sewage spills and other problems at the plant.

The three imposed a 30-day moratorium on new building permits, hired a private contractor to run the 45-year-old plant and dismissed the town attorney when his contract expired last week.

But the council has refused whistleblower Robert Griffith's request for his old job back. Griffith, who worked nearly 10 years at the plant, started the brouhaha by outlining his charges in a January letter to the council and then releasing records to reporters this month. Griffith was fired April 5, Election Day, by the council that was headed by Whitehill.

Residents, new and old, can't help wondering whether a growth rate that has pushed the population from 1,900 to about 2,600 since the 2000 census pushed the plant beyond its limits.

"I feel bad at what all our homes might be adding to the town's problems," said 33-year-old Shawn Jones, an Annapolis firefighter who -- like so many newer residents -- moved here from Anne Arundel County and commutes to a job on the Western Shore.

Many of the newcomers were lured across the Bay Bridge by housing prices their young families could afford.

"We're in the transplant category in town, but we love it here," says Michelle Dunkerly, who moved from Glen Burnie to a new development on the north end of Centreville three years ago with her husband, Rick, and two young children. "We have so many friends here now. I'll bet 90 percent of the people here are from across the bay."

Monday, the Town Council toured the new $9 million treatment plant -- which is two years behind schedule and due for completion this summer. The plant, slow-growth advocates say, is already too small to handle the load from the growing town, where 600 or more houses are on the drawing board.

Even before the plant opens, town officials are seeking state approval to expand its capacity.

"I'm hoping the investigations will show the facts for everyone to see," says McCarthy, executive director of the Queen Anne's Historical Society. "The chips of accountability need to fall where they may, and let us move forward."

State officials say untreated sewage is no longer leaking, but the cleanup continues as workers remove built-up sludge.

Critics question the state's oversight. They wonder how the town, which signed a consent agreement with MDE in October 2001 spelling out guidelines for running the deficient plant until the new facility opened, could continue allowing new construction.

Town records show that 297 residential building permits and eight for commercial projects have been approved since the agreement was completed.

Scott MacGlashan, clerk of the Circuit Court since 1994, hears most of the rumor and political scuttlebutt from his corner office in the county courthouse. He's reluctant to talk specifics about Centreville's current woes, but he believes the town is not alone in its predicament.

"I think Centreville's facing the same challenge of a lot of small towns where growth is the underlying issue," MacGlashan says. "Maybe the scab has been knocked off here, but there are lots of other little towns."

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