3 Carroll school districts closed to homebuilding

Water shortages also seen putting brakes on growth

August 13, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Water shortages and crowded schools are hampering housing development in southern Carroll County.

The county commissioners closed three more school districts yesterday to new homebuilding and warned that shortages of drinking water may force even more restrictions in some areas unless a treatment plant is expanded or new wells are dug.

The commissioners added Piney Ridge Elementary in Sykesville, Mechanicsville Elementary in Gamber and Westminster Elementary in the county seat to the list of crowded schools that includes Eldersburg, Hampstead, Manchester and Mount Airy elementary schools, as well as Sykesville and Mount Airy middle schools and North Carroll High School.

"This means there are no new residential building permits available in these school districts," said Steven Horn, county director of planning.

Even with the heavy summer rain and an abundant water supply at its border, the county hasn't been able to procure the necessary approvals for new sources of water.

Construction of several wells and an expansion of the Freedom Water Treatment Plant at Liberty Reservoir, which serves about 7,000 homes and businesses in South Carroll, could ease the water shortage. But the county commissioners said they have been stymied for nearly two years.

The county needs state approval to dig the wells and Baltimore's approval to expand the nearby water treatment plant on Liberty Reservoir, which the city owns.

The wells have been designed but have not received construction approval from the state. The city was expected to endorse an agreement for the plant as soon as this month, but construction could take nearly four years.

"These events could definitely affect development in South Carroll," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich.

With a population of 163,000, Carroll County grew by about 23 percent in the 1990s and an additional 8 percent since the 2000 census.

Access to water has become a severe problem in some of the state's fastest-growing areas. In July, state Environment Secretary Kendl P. Philbrick imposed a building ban on Middletown, near Frederick, saying the town had ignored two years of warnings that its growth was outstripping its water supply.

The month before, state environmental officials told Taneytown, in western Carroll County, that it had too little water to support new construction.

About 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. The town now requires developers to find water before starting construction.

Crowded schools in South Carroll are also creating problems for developers. With the addition yesterday of the three school districts in South Carroll and Westminster, there are now 10 schools in areas where homes cannot be built until crowding is alleviated.

In part, the commissioners blamed a new state education regulation that reduces the maximum number of students per classroom from 25 to 23.

The reduction in classroom size means Carroll needs 1 1/2 new elementary schools, officials said. Each elementary school costs about $15 million to build.

"If we don't start preparing now, we will have more kids and more houses than we know what to do with," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "And this new mandate comes on top of all-day kindergarten."

The State Department of Education has ordered that public school systems provide all-day kindergarten. In Carroll, that policy is expected to cost about $18 million.

The state mandate on classroom size will figure heavily in discussions next week at the Maryland Association of Counties convention in Ocean City, Gouge said.

"The governor's office has told us to start preparing for all this now," said Commissioner Perry L. Jones. "But we know that whatever dollars the state gives us to build will still leave us behind."

The commissioners' action on the three schools came less than two months after the county's yearlong freeze on residential growth expired.

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