MDE freezes development in Centreville

Town's swift expansion overwhelmed troubled sewage treatment plant

`We do not have any choice'

Larger facility to open by fall, but ban won't end if it can't handle growth

May 04, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CENTREVILLE -- State environmental officials, who for weeks have been monitoring an ailing sewage treatment plant here that apparently dumped millions of gallons of untreated sewage into a Chester River tributary, have put an indefinite freeze on development that stretched the 45-year-old facility beyond its limits.

Town officials, who on April 12 approved a 30-day moratorium on new building permits, signed an unusual agreement yesterday with the Maryland Department of the Environment that will slow the pace of commercial and residential growth in this 210-year-old Eastern Shore town -- at least until the completion of an often-delayed $9.7 million plant.

In place of the local ordinance, the consent agreement will halt not only building permits, but subdivision site approvals and new sewer connections until the new plant is open and found to be operating properly -- perhaps as early as late August, but possibly not until late fall.

The town must then show that the new 500,000-gallon facility can handle existing users and has the capacity to accommodate more before MDE will allow further development. In Centreville, the Queen Anne's County seat, the population has increased by nearly one-third in four years.

"We do not have any choice on this at all," Council President Norman P. Pinder Jr. said yesterday. "We have to stop right where we are, then draw up a plan so we do not go over the capacity of the new plant. And the state has to give its OK."

Local officials, who say sewer plans were often approved with a handshake at Town Hall, have been trying to develop a formal procedure for granting hook-ups to the wastewater system. Under the agreement signed yesterday, they also must come up with a "capacity management plan" to track development and its impact on the new treatment plant.

"We hope [the state's involvement] will take some of the heat off the town, and we need that," said Mary McCarthy, who was elected to the three-member council April 5. "I think it's obvious there's no Mayberry in Centreville anymore, and we can't run it that way."

State officials say it has been about 20 years since MDE stepped in anywhere to put a hold on development because of sewage treatment problems.

"It's not unheard of that we tell a community to put the brakes on growth," said Jeffrey R. Welsh, MDE's communications director. "We don't want to stand between a community and its ability to grow economically. This is an issue where development has outrun the ability to handle it."

The 1959 treatment plant has been at the heart of a broad probe of unreported sewage spills and charges from a former plant operator that the facility was pushed beyond its 375,000-gallon daily limit to keep pace with development as large tracts of nearby farmland were annexed and developed into neighborhoods and shopping centers.

Now, developers and other business owners worry they might be left in the lurch, along with homebuyers who have paid deposits on houses that were scheduled to be built, says attorney Christopher F. Drummond, who represents several local developers.

"It sounds like people are going to be left in limbo," Drummond said. "It's going to leave quite a number of projects up in the air or at least unfinished. It raises as many questions as it answers."

Town officials say the plant should be completed sometime in August if the weather is good. According to the agreement signed yesterday, it must be finished no later than Nov. 30.

"I know the developers and other people are going to be screaming," Pinder said. "I understand it's going to be tough on some, but this gives us time to do what we need to do."

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