Tiny village threatened with loss of its water

maryland scenes

November 02, 2008|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,scott.calvert@baltsun.com

Headlights swung into the parking lot outside the Lions Club until no more cars could fit. Latecomers pulled off along Petersville Road. The overflow crowd was almost unheard of in the sleepy village of Rosemont, population 325.

But on this breezy night in southwest Frederick County, there was an air of urgency and disbelief, as dozens of residents trooped in to learn about the threat to drain their spigots dry. "It's like an alternate universe," is how Rosemont resident Kevin Coyne would later put it.

Just down the hill in Brunswick, pop. 6,000, city leaders were close to issuing an ultimatum: If Rosemont, or the county or somebody somewhere didn't take over the dilapidated pipes that carry water to 80 homes in Rosemont, the city would turn off the village's water May 25.

Just like that: Off.

It was, and still is, a proposal and, by Brunswick's admission, an attention-getting negotiating tactic. That night Rosemont residents knew Brunswick yet had steps to take in November to accomplish a shut-off come May.


The mere idea that their big municipal brother would consider cutting off their collective lifeline provoked a prickly mix of outrage and concern. The consensus view in Rosemont: Brunswick was being a big bully.

By all accounts Brunswick and Rosemont have been neighborly since the village was incorporated in 1953, though their characters differ. Brunswick is an old railroad town on the Potomac River with a distant heyday. Rosemont is a bedroom community with roomy ranchers and two-story houses on big lots.

Rosemont's burgess, or mayor, thinks some in Brunswick might see villagers as a tad snooty. The motto, "An Address of Distinction," may not help, Burgess Jackie Ebersole conceded .

Rosemont itself has changed in recent years with a mini-influx of Washington commuters. Coyne, 42, came six years ago. He's a nuclear engineer who rides the train to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Rockville. He lives next to Tommy "Bo" Overton, a 51-year-old lifelong area resident who owns a lawn care business. The two neighbors were at the meeting, along with dozens of others.

Inside the Lions Club, in front of a brick fireplace displaying trophies, sat the four village commissioners. The faux-wood paneled hall doubles as the village meeting spot. Presiding from a seat at the folding table was the burgess, a bespectacled woman with short gray curls.

"I think we all know why we're here," Ebersole said in a folksy tone tinged with angst.

This is hardly the first time water has divided two communities. In Western Maryland, past disputes have turned on a scarcity of supply during times of drought. In this case the supply is not the issue; distribution is.

The crux is this: Brunswick insists it doesn't own the timeworn pipes laid by the federal government back in the late 1930s. As it happens, those pipes need an overhaul that could cost $3 million. Brunswick says it can't, and won't, foot the bill.

But if the city won't, who will?

The county has shown no interest in assuming the burden. Applications for state grants have not succeeded (though a Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman says the state is exploring ways to "financially assist"). Tiny Rosemont could not possibly manage on its own. Divide three million bucks by 80 users. That's $37,500 a customer.

Early in the meeting, Ebersole tried to ease fears. She recounted a talk with Jay Sakai, the state's director of water management, and read aloud:

"The state of Maryland would view an act to terminate [water service] as a potential threat to public health and would act immediately to resolve and restore service."

In other words, he had indicated the state would make Brunswick eat the ultimatum if it came to that. Gazing out from under the fluorescent lights, she told the crowd, "I hope that makes everyone feel a little better about this situation."

A little, maybe.

"We are being targeted," Overton responded from the back.

"That to me don't sound kosher."

The way he sees it, Brunswick benefited all these years from water fees paid by Rosemont residents. Why didn't it set aside money for repairs instead of deciding to cut and run?

Buck Richardson, wearing denim overalls and a long ponytail, spoke up. "I'm worried about the ability to cut off the water for whatever reason." His parents are 90 years old and scared.

The crowd had lots of questions, outnumbering answers. If the city had power to decide who could tap into the pipes over the years, wasn't that de facto ownership? What about a class action suit against the city?

"I don't think anyone can tell you flat-out that this is legal or it's illegal," said village attorney John Clapp.

Villagers say they harbor no ill will toward the people of Brunswick.

Overton banks at the PNC branch, buys gas at the Citgo, shops at Brunswick Hardware. Overton's complaint is with the city's mayor, Carroll Jones.

For his part, Jones said the other day, Brunswick's efforts to engage the county and Rosemont in discussions went nowhere, and "we're not going to leave this in limbo."

His point was echoed by Brunswick's administrator David Dunn.

"Maybe this creates a resolution," Dunn said, "brings it to a head."

That night in Rosemont, the water fight was coming to a head. As resident Woody Woodrum exclaimed, leaving the hall, "This is David and Goliath!"

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