Town eager to end building moratorium

Centreville frustrated by sewage problems

September 14, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CENTREVILLE - Pretty much everybody in this 210-year-old Eastern Shore town has heard the jokes about changing its name to "Sewerville."

But it has been four months since environmental problems at an aging sewage plant brought a state-imposed development moratorium on the fast-growing Queen Anne's County seat, and many here just don't see the humor anymore.

"We are trying to move ahead, dealing with some of our problems, but you wonder how many times Centreville has to wind up in the news," says Town Councilwoman Mary McCarthy. "I think we're still working to restore credibility. With all that's happened, we owe the townspeople a lot right now."

Patience is wearing thin, even as the town of 2,500 begins phasing in a new $9.7 million treatment plant - a system that Maryland Department of the Environment officials say won't be able to handle all the development already approved or on the drawing board. To keep up, the Town Council is already planning to expand the new plant's capacity from 500,000 gallons per day to 750,000 gallons.

With the building ban hurting developers and tradesmen, as well as homebuyers who plunked down deposits on lots that are sitting idle, a special committee is polishing the details of a plan to divvy up the new plant's remaining capacity.

Questions persist about how long the raw sewage was allowed to pour from the 45-year-old plant into a tributary of the Corsica River and why 300 building permits were issued after the town signed a 2001 consent agreement with the state setting capacity limits for the old plant until the new plant was functioning.

Investigators in the environmental crimes unit at the Maryland attorney general's office have been looking into the matter since January.

A sewage spill Aug. 28 has fueled a new set of rumors and angered local activists, who contend that town officials are following a familiar pattern by fudging numbers to downplay the amount of sewage that leaked into a shallow creek flowing into the Corsica. Officials at MDE say they are investigating what was reported as a minor spill of about 250 gallons of sewage.

The first order of business is to complete a capacity management plan that newly hired Town Manager Royden N. Powell III, a former high-level administrator in the state agriculture department, says could be approved by the Town Council at a special session Oct. 6, well ahead of the state's Nov. 30 deadline.

A public hearing on the plan will be held Sept. 30, Powell said, then an Oct. 4 council work session for last-minute revisions.

The best-case scenario, according to Powell, would see a lifting of the building moratorium in early November. Officials at MDE are also considering an interim step to allow work to begin on properties that were under contract but had not received building permits when the moratorium was imposed.

Like so many others in Centreville, Sydney Ashley and his daughter, Jenna, wonder where their small land-development and property-management business will fit once the new plant is fully operational. Caught by the moratorium after completing a portion of a new strip shopping center in town, the two are waiting for the go-ahead to partition off the remaining space for small shops.

The elder Ashley worries that residential developments at either end of town, which could eventually total 800 new homes, will squeeze commercial users.

"There's no moratorium on interest rates at the bank. We have $4 million tied up and tenants lining up for space we can't give them yet," Ashley says.

Residents of the first 40 homes in Symphony Village, a 395-unit development that is being marketed to baby-boom retirees, count themselves lucky to have moved in before the moratorium. Another 40 or so buyers have signed contracts and made down payments, but construction of their houses hasn't begun.

Betty Lord, 58, and her husband Craig, 61, expected to be moving into their new house this month. Instead, they've held off selling their home in Annapolis.

"We were thinking ahead about this wonderful retirement area on the Eastern Shore," Betty Lord says. "Now ... we get the feeling that the town doesn't want us anymore. We're innocent people just trying to get on with our lives."

Meanwhile, critics of the town government, such as Sveinn Storm, continue to pack council meetings.

Storm, who has schooled himself in the minutiae of wastewater management, says the spill last month might have been 10 times the 250 gallons officials estimated. He says installing flow meters at two pumping stations would provide accurate data.

Last month, Storm was arrested for trespassing after refusing to leave a closed County Council meeting about development in Sudlersville.

"There are some people who see me as the culprit who's caused all these delays, some people who see me as a loose cannon," Storm says. "But I'm a very focused cannon, and I'm not going to shut up."

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