New houses vs. drinking water

Developer sees no problem with his plans, but some see a proposed subdivision as a threat

April 19, 2006|BY A SUN REPORTER

Thomas Taro almost caresses the 16.9-ounce plastic bottle of Natural Spring Water, then a faraway look slowly creeps across his face.

"If it gets above 10, I'll be out of business," he said.

By "it" Taro means nitrates. And by "10" he means milligrams per liter - the maximum permitted by the government for drinking water.

His concern is understandable because he operates Brick House Farm Water Co., which draws 47 million gallons of bottled spring water annually for customers from his 98-acre farm.

While the bottle Taro clutches represents his livelihood, it also is a metaphor for a broader dispute over a planned luxury minisubdivision in rural Ellicott City.

The Williamsburg Group has proposed building 19 homes on 40 acres off Sheppard Lane. Eight of those would be on septic tanks while 11 would be served by a $1 million sewage treatment and disposal system to be constructed on the property.

Harry "Chip" Lundy, the founder, president and chief executive officer of the company, said preliminary work, such as grading and building roads, is expected to begin in the fall, with construction starting next spring.

The central question is whether the development would present a threat to the drinking water.

Robert W. Sheesley, an environmental consultant retained by the developer, insists that all regulations and safety requirements have been met, and that the fears of opponents of the development are unfounded. He also points out that the nitrate standards are more rigid than they would normally be in such cases in recognition of the nearby water-bottling operation.

"They will have to meet a great deal of criteria to move forward," Sheesley said. " ... Everyone is taking Taro's business and the adjacent stream system very seriously."

Nearby residents of pricey Fox Run Estates are just as adamant that the proposed development could harm their water and, thus, their property values.

Fox Run Estates has 11 homes, all exceptionally large, and on land ranging from 3 acres to 5 acres. All have septic tanks and use well water.

For the moment, the fight is over the developer's application for a groundwater discharge permit from the Maryland Department of the Environment, which is necessary for the sewage system to be built.

But the dispute transcends that application. Residents say that the subdivision will exacerbate what they describe as a frequent flooding problem from storm water. They question why the county would permit development on the property while simultaneously advocating preservation of farmland. And they criticize the county's decision to support construction of the treatment system when it has concluded that it does not want to be saddled with operating and maintaining such small facilities in the future.

But those issues are irrelevant to the state's consideration of the application for the disposal permit.

Further, the purpose of using shared sewage disposal systems is part of the county's policy to protect and preserve agricultural land through cluster developments, such as the proposed subdivision by the Williamsburg Group, while setting land aside for open space.

The Williamsburg Group development would, for the most part, be on higher ground and, Sheesley said, the treated and safe effluent would seep into the soil beneath the dispersal system and eventually into underground streams, which flow away from Fox Run and the Taro properties.

"That minimizes the opportunity of any negative impact" to the residents and the bottling company, he said.

The effluent from the septic tanks in Fox Run is untreated before it is discharged into the soil.

The residents, though, are disinclined to put their faith in the treatment system.

"Is this going to be a viable system?" Richard Azzaro, a Fox Run resident, asked at a recent MDE hearing on the discharge permit application. " ... Can this land carry this burden?"

Another resident, Taz Ezzat, testified that he is "very opposed" to the issuance of the permit. The project, he said, "will not enhance the neighborhood. ... This is not something that is acceptable to the community."

And Cathleen F. Ward, an attorney representing Taro, said her client relies on a "precious natural stream. Any increase in nitrates will put this business out of business."

But the nitrate standards for the treatment system, Sheesley said, have been lowered to meet drinking water regulations set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and any nitrates that reach the underground water would be negligible and safe.

The proposed system would collect and treat sewage. The permit would limit the wastewater flow to 8,250 gallons a day. The wastewater would be pretreated to meet effluent quality limitations. The permit also would require monitoring of the system and the filing with MDE of monthly operating reports.

After the first year, the system would be turned over to the county to operate and maintain.

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