Plans to tap river put on hold in Mount Airy


A potential water war in Mount Airy has been averted - for the next month, anyway - after a pair of tense meetings last week over the town's contentious plan to tap the upper Patapsco River for new development.

Town officials agreed Wednesday night to give Carroll County officials a month to furnish information on the feasibility of drawing water from Gillis Falls, a nearby tributary of the river that the county also hopes to tap.

Officials with the Maryland Department of the Environment, meanwhile, announced at the end of a three-hour public meeting Tuesday night that the public would have until Jan. 13 to comment on the town's application to take water from the south branch of the Patapsco.

With home construction limited because of water shortages, officials of the town of 8,500 residents straddling the Carroll-Frederick border have turned to the Patapsco after test wells failed to find enough ground water for existing and future residents.

The state environmental agency, which must approve the plan, has determined that when rainfall is adequate the river could yield an average of 314,000 gallons a day to supplement water pumped from the town's 10 operating wells. That should be enough, town officials say, to furnish drinking water to nearly 600 new homes the town already has approved, and more.

"New water would help further us in our economic development, not only downtown but throughout the town," said Wendi Peters, the Town Council member who oversaw the Patapsco plan.

The proposal has divided residents, with critics questioning the quantity and quality of water from the Patapsco's south branch. No more than 3 feet wide in places, it flows past highways, railroads, and residential and commercial development. Opponents worry that the stream would dry up in droughts and that it is vulnerable to contamination from spills and runoff pollution.

"This is not prudent," resident Chris Spaur said Tuesday night. "This is not the way most people choose a water supply."

Opponents also have complained that town officials quietly negotiated the plan with a developer, CBI Development Group, that is seeking to annex two tracts where it wants to build about 375 homes.

The developer has offered to cover the $7 million capital costs of the river water intake, pipeline and treatment plant. In return for the town annexing the 253-acre Zeltman tract, the developer also agreed to donate 55 acres for schools and 24 acres for a park, plus make a payment of $3 million.

For some, the water plan is an ill-conceived boon to the developer that might open the door to growth the town cannot handle.

"I'm not no-growth, but I do want to see it controlled," resident John Woodhull said.

The town pumped more water from its wells last year than its state permit allowed - leading to a consent decree earlier this year with the state, in which town officials agreed to limit construction of the homes it had approved until a new water source could be developed. But town officials say they are legally obligated to find a new source of water for those homes, and they need more water to supply businesses they hope to lure into a revived downtown.

"We cannot sit back and die on the vine," Peters said Tuesday. "You're either green and growing at a very measured and managed pace, or you're dead and dying. We need the economic vitality, the addition to our tax base."

Carroll's commissioners and county staff met with their Mount Airy counterparts Wednesday night to air their concerns that the town's Patapsco bid conflicts with the county's long-term plans to tap Gillis Falls.

After that meeting, Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr. said he was hopeful the town would see the merits of joining with the county in tapping Gillis Falls, which he said has "some of the best water around." The county has acquired much of the land in the stream's small watershed to keep it from being developed.

County officials hope to furnish water from Gillis Falls to a nearby employment campus. County officials have been thwarted in the past in seeking to dam the stream to build a reservoir, but now want to look at a straight withdrawal.

Jones acknowledged that town officials might be unwilling to defer their expansion plans long enough to cooperate with the county. But he said he believed that instead of pushing to develop more expensive housing on the town's fringe, Mount Airy officials should focus on boosting economic and housing development in the community's core, where about 300 vacant lots remain.

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