Middletown fights state ban on building

Families' plans jeopardized

freeze stemming from rules on water may be harbinger

July 26, 2004|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

MIDDLETOWN - Empty-nesters since their daughters left for college, Craig and Maggie Toussaint were ready to ease into retirement and a new house in this town of rolling fields just west of Frederick.

Craig Toussaint, a part-time engineer, had his sights on the championship golf course down the road from their subdivision. Maggie Toussaint, a retired toxicologist, planned to write murder mysteries from a loft with views of South Mountain.

But the state of Maryland had other plans. This month, Environment Secretary Kendl P. Philbrick imposed a building ban on Middletown, saying the town had ignored two years of warnings that its growth was outstripping its water supply.

The rare step cast into limbo the lives of the Toussaints and about a dozen other families who had signed contracts and put down deposits for custom homes, but were still in line for building permits. The Toussaints have sold their old house in Frederick. Several families have scrambled to find month-to-month rentals while the state and town trade accusations over who is to blame.

"We feel like we're collateral damage caught in a bureaucratic battle," Toussaint said, standing with his wife in the knee-high weeds where their house was supposed to be. "Right now, we have no idea what to do."

The story of Middletown's water woes is only partly about dream homes deferred. It is also about a town that staked its fiscal future on fees from new development, and about a clash between two state policies - one that promotes growth in places such as Middletown, one that limits the amount of groundwater a town can tap.

Middletown's ordeal, while an extreme case, is a harbinger for growing rural towns across Maryland, state officials and experts say. As Marylanders spread farther from urban centers, small towns dependent on groundwater will face increasing pressure - and possibly state decrees - to find more water or halt growth.

Last month, state environmental officials told Taneytown, in western Carroll County, that it had too little water to support new construction. Around the same time, the Maryland Department of the Environment cut by a third the volume of water Carroll had hoped to draw from planned wells in Sykesville. Carroll commissioners, in turn, put sharp curbs on home construction and urged residents to conserve water.

Mount Airy, which straddles Carroll and Frederick counties, recently lifted a two-year building ban but now requires developers to find water before starting construction.

State environmental officials say the issue has become a high priority since a severe drought two years ago led the city of Frederick to halt most construction and plan for emergency truck deliveries of water. An advisory panel on Maryland's long-term water situation, created by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. after the 2002 drought, is expected to issue a report next month.

"We're looking very hard at this issue," said Virginia Kearney, the MDE's deputy director of water management. "We want to see growth happen in these designated priority funding areas," she added, referring to places pegged for growth under the state's Smart Growth program. "But we need to make sure the infrastructure is there to accommodate it."

In Middletown, the state and town are feuding over whether there is enough groundwater to support the expansion of two subdivisions of $350,000 to $600,000 homes.

Philbrick imposed the moratorium after Middletown defied repeated warnings and announced plans this year to issue 44 new building permits.

Middletown officials have appealed the state's action and scoff at the idea that taps are going dry. They say the town has never withdrawn more than its permitted 314,500 gallons a day and accuse the state of using unrealistically high estimates of its future water needs.

"Nobody in this town has ever turned on a tap and not had water, but MDE keeps pounding away at this," says John Miller, the town burgess, or mayor. "They think we're not sophisticated enough to handle this. Just because you have gun racks and fishing poles doesn't mean you can't figure things out."

The two developments at the town's edge, Foxfield and Glenbrook, have drawn a parade of affluent families and retirees enamored with the mountain views, quiet cul-de-sacs and 18-hole Hollow Creek Golf Club. Middletown's population reached 2,805 last year, up 53 percent from 1,834 in 1990.

Many growing towns would pounce on the chance to blame the state for a building ban. But Middletown has a hefty financial stake in expansion. Of the town's $1.2 million annual budget, $300,000 in revenue comes directly from developers in the form of fees for townwide water and sewer upgrades.

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