High price of progress

Some in Carrs Manor smell a raw deal in a sewer line that will cost many of them tens of thousands of dollars

November 18, 2007|By Kimberly Marselas | Kimberly Marselas,Special to The Sun

Eighteen years after Chris Mikesell bought a 1,000-square-foot cottage, he and his wife have finally saved enough money for some remodeling. But they may have to scrap those plans for a $50,000 to $60,000 upgrade they don't want.

Another property owner in the 30-lot community of Carrs Manor, just across from the Annapolis city line, successfully petitioned Anne Arundel County for a sewer line extension that will cost an estimated $1.4 million -- a price that would be divided among all the property owners.

While it's common practice for the county to install the hookups at a subdivision majority's request, the fee in this case -- up to $150,000 for one homeowner -- has fueled frustration in the community about the fairness of that law.

"If it passed, and my husband and I really, really planned, we could afford it. But at what cost?" Anne Mikesell asked. "I don't want to give up certain groceries or keep the house at a certain temperature because I have to pay for a sewer that someone else wants."

Rob Bontempo, who has been working since 1997 to bring a sewer line to Carrs Manor, argues that his neighbors would gain services and increase their homes' values.

"I'm just trying to get the neighborhood up to the standard in all the surrounding neighborhoods," said Bontempo, who now lives in Bay Ridge.

He first bought in the community in 1986, when he was straight out of college, and the lots and houses -- once used by affluent black families that frequented Carrs Beach in the 1960s -- were cheap. During the next several years, the Annapolis Painting Co. founder bought up several other lots in the community.

He first tried to work with the city, whose lines are much closer than the county's and already serve a stretch of Blackwell Road, just behind the neighborhood.

"I tried to get people to pitch in and help me do it then, but it just fell by the wayside," Bontempo said of the first $200,000 to $300,000 proposal.

He turned a few years later to the county, which unlike the city, offered financing that can stretch the bulk of payments over 30 years. Leslie Campbell, manager of financial services for the county Department of Public Works, said the project is more expensive than usual because the cost won't be spread among many properties.

Bontempo completed a petition in February 2006. The vote among property owners in August was 21-13 in favor, with Bontempo and his family members accounting for nine of the "yes" votes. The vote included four property owners whose lots are on 6.5 acres near Chesapeake Harbor that would also be served by the 3,800-foot line.

Each property owner is expected to pay approximately $33 per foot for the length of their lot. Those with existing homes will also have to pay tapping and plumbing fees and the cost to remove working septic systems.

Only a vote by the council can stop it. The county can also compel residents to pay, placing liens on their property and selling homes at tax sales if necessary.

"Water and sewer have to be self-supporting," said Kathryn Dahl, a land-use attorney with Annapolis firm Hyatt & Weber, who is not involved in this issue. "They don't let people off the hook that easily."

That's left plenty of hard feelings, with some neighbors accusing Bontempo of get-rich schemes. His lots, most of them vacant, are zoned to accommodate duplexes and townhouses at a density of 15 units an acre.

"All the `no' votes are people who live in the neighborhood," said Dave Mansbridge, a carpenter who lives in one home, rents out a second and is facing $150,000 in fees. "All the `yes' votes are carpetbaggers who bought up the vacant lots. ... Everything that they have is going to be 10 times more valuable."

Mansbridge contends that Bontempo will develop his properties and pass his costs on to new home buyers, while longtime residents with fixed incomes or several children will be paying for years to come.

Bontempo, whose bill would total more than $300,000, said he isn't a developer and wants to build his parents a retirement home.

County Councilman Josh Cohen, a Democrat representing Annapolis, has been meeting with worried residents. He's concerned that only a simple majority is required to request sewer projects, while special taxing districts need the approval of two-thirds of owners, with a single owner of multiple lots getting one vote.

"To me, when you're asking someone to commit to an obligation over 30 years, it seems that's something that should be consistent," said Cohen, who added that council members are looking at ways to ease the financial burden.

Exemptions are available for low-income and elderly residents. They must hook up and pay a $55 connection fee and regular sewer bills, but the frontage costs would be deferred until their deaths or when the home is sold.

Mansbridge does not qualify; he said he would be forced to give up much of his retirement money. He described himself as a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union and vowed to seek an injunction if the council approves the project.

"We've already paid to be able to flush our toilets," he said. "We don't want to be on their grid. We don't want to be part of their world."

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