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June 14, 2007

ACarroll County town has been forced to give up on a conventional scheme for economic prosperity, but will likely wind up the better for it.

Not so long ago, the town fathers of Mount Airy had hoped to expand their tax base and pay for new facilities by letting the town grow to the max, developing as much as possible of their available land and annexing more from the county, if need be. But an unexpected water shortage forced a recalculation that may make Mount Airy a leader in the skill of remaining prosperous by living within its means. It's a model that other Maryland communities should watch closely.

The grow-or-die theory of local government is widely adhered to. Development traditionally is thought to mean jobs, tax revenue, customers for local business - an economic jolt.

Growth isn't necessarily a net gain, though, and might not even pay for itself. In the case of Mount Airy, officials had approved by last year far more prospective residential development than the state Department of Environment said the town's well system could accommodate. In a desperate bid to increase the water supply, the Town Council agreed to approve another 275 homes for a developer, who promised in turn to help in the construction of a pipeline that would tap into the Patapsco River.

That plan, which would have cost $37 million, was overwhelmingly defeated by voters in an election last May that also turned out two of the officials who voted for it. Now, Mount Airy is moving cautiously merely to expand its water sources enough to meet its current needs and that of previously approved development. It's given up on the expensive river route and is looking instead for new well locations. Most promising is an agreement with Carroll County that will allow Mount Airy to prospect for water in Gillis Falls, long considered a potential reservoir site.

Town Councilman John Woodhull, swept into office last year on the wave of anti-growth sentiment, said his dream would be to surround Mount Airy with a buffer of green - parkland, ball fields and open space that would give back in environmental quality and aesthetics more than they cost to maintain.

Meanwhile, the citizens of Mount Airy are working on water conservation: fixing leaky pipes, installing low-flush toilets and switching to front-loading washing machines.

Not very glamorous, perhaps, but a route to prosperity nonetheless.

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