Developers, Westminster assess freeze on growth

Water issues keep projects on hold

September 29, 2006|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun Reporter

Martin W. Hackett's engineering firm has been working on a half-dozen residential developments in and around Westminster for the past five years.

But those lucrative projects were halted this week when state officials effectively froze development in the Carroll County seat until new water sources are secured.

Hackett's business is one of many local firms that depend on construction and is now on hold. He fears that developers might start taking their business elsewhere after the state warned that Westminster cannot meet existing water demand during even minor droughts.

"To have the recording of lots or the permits reduced or withheld completely: It's going to be a huge financial burden," said Hackett, whose Westminster company, CLSI, represents about 700 affected residential units planned for the city and surrounding area.

"Although the municipality is not intentionally trying to scare business away, the rumors get out, and [developers] put their investments elsewhere, where they're not going to be challenged to get through the process," Hackett said.

A state Department of the Environment letter on the water deficit prompted the Carroll County Health Department to stop issuing all city building permits. In June, the department, part of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, had stopped signing new record plats, which depict the boundaries of individual lots. The plats are required for new subdivisions to move forward.

"It's really a global impact, affecting everything from one lot to a 100-lot subdivision," Westminster Mayor Thomas K. Ferguson said yesterday. "It's not just residential, commercial and industrial. How does this impact institutions like the hospital?"

Carroll Hospital Center had gained approval for a $27 million expansion, but building permits have yet to be issued.

Although Westminster has nearly 18,000 residents, the city water system serves about 35,000 area customers, Ferguson said. The system, which delivers about 3 million gallons a day, would be short 700,000 gallons a day during a drought, state environmental officials said.

Westminster is only one of several communities in the region where water shortages have curbed development. Similar problems trouble smaller towns, from Middletown in Frederick County to Mount Airy and Taneytown in Carroll. Future development in populous South Carroll hinges on the success of new wells and millions of dollars in upgrades to the Freedom Water Treatment Plant.

In preparation for a meeting with the environmental department, city officials are reevaluating how many non-Westminster residents still could receive city water and sewer connections.

"We're looking to scale back providing so much water to carry outside the city, through prioritizing, with residential development lower on the list," said Matthew B. Davis, Westminster's manager of planning and development. "It's still to be determined."

Outside the city limits, four major residential projects are slated to receive city water, said Clay Black, chief of Carroll County's development review bureau.

Nearly 90 units are planned for Greenvale Mews, a retirement community scheduled to be built just outside Westminster, off Gist Road.

Greenvale is one of Hackett's projects. His surveying and engineering firm also has a contract for the 146-acre Hoff-Naganna property in Westminster, where 225 homes are planned.

Despite objections from residents and the Carroll County commissioners, Westminster City Council annexed the Hoff-Naganna property, off Old Westminster Road, in the summer.

The lots were still about a year away from being processed and shouldn't be unduly affected, said Richard Kress, developer of the site.

"I'm hopeful that it will get resolved within that time frame," Kress said. "I have a lot of confidence in city officials. They just need to work with MDE and get it done."

In Westminster, the freeze on building permits will most affect the 188-unit Village of Meadow Creek subdivision off Routes 140 and 31, city planning staffers said. Chesapeake Realty and Development has about 90 units awaiting building permits there, Davis said.

Before the development freeze, Westminster awarded 50 permits per subdivision each year, he added.

Until Westminster commits to more water resources, eight pending annexations could be tied up, city officials said.

A new state planning law requires municipalities to demonstrate adequate water and wastewater treatment facilities are in place before new land is annexed. That law, passed by the General Assembly this year, takes effect Sunday.

"When you know you have an issue with water, we've got to slow that process down until we get a fix on how to supply the services that annexation implies," Ferguson said.

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