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Limits on wastewater called 'critical issue'

September 05, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - When Gary Rohrer was asked to revise Washington County's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, designed to collect fees for schools and roads in high-growth areas, he said he was "somewhat surprised by the volume of activity" of development in the county.

Trying to calculate fees to cover the costs of keeping up with development proved a challenge.

"It's almost impossible to quantify the cumulative effect," Rohrer said. "Throughout our rural area there are certain land-rights issues - but when those land rights are exercised, there's an impact."

As the county's director of public works, Rohrer oversees seven county departments, including highways, water and solid waste - all of which are directly affected by development. And the "volume of activity" presented some serious consequences for the county's infrastructure, starting with roads.

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Years of being shortchanged on state gas tax revenues left insufficient funding for maintaining roads, Rohrer argued.

"I have spent a lot of time in Annapolis screaming about withholding of gas taxes," he said.

And what he saw as too much leniency in enforcing standards for development didn't help, he said.

"We are seeing the effects of things that were permitted in the late '80s and early '90s," he said.

Rohrer said the county's roads system evolved from farm lanes that were overlaid with pavement - not built as modern roads are. Because of that, he said, repairs have at times been "Band-Aid approaches" because the money was not there to build them adequately.

But now, Rohrer said, the state has loosened its grip on revenues - though he maintains the local portion is "still not where it should be" - and the county commissioners this year committed more money than ever for the highway system.

"This board of commissioners really made a financial commitment to address reconstruction," he said, noting they earmarked $3.3 million for reconstruction projects.

"The most we've ever had in one year has been $1 million," Rohrer said. "That's a major statement about our roads."

'Critical issues'


Limits on the ability to tap into the county's wastewater treatment system, along with the student capacity rates at the county's schools, could produce the county's biggest headaches as it copes with new development, he said.

"The critical issues are on two fronts - school capacity and wastewater," Rohrer said. "If I had to pick, I would pick wastewater."

County Planning Director Michael Thompson added that "schools and water and sewer are putting a pinch on everything right now."

In undeveloped areas that haven't tapped into the wastewater treatment system, approval gets a bit tricky. The same goes for areas where schools are deemed to be at capacity.

Those issues have, in fact, scared some developers away, Thompson said. After explaining those limits to one out-of-town developer, Thompson said the developer asked, "You got anything simple?"

"I said 'no,'" Thompson said.

Previous boards of county commissioners attempted to prepare for growth, particularly industrial growth, by approving construction of the Conococheague Wastewater Treatment Plant and an industrial pretreatment plant but incurred the wrath of county taxpayers when water and sewer rates were projected to double or, in some cases, triple to pay debts for construction when growth during the 1990s did not meet expectations.

"Rates that were projected in 1995 were astounding," Rohrer recalled. "In retrospect, the Conococheague Wastewater Treatment Plant is a valuable piece of infrastructure. There'll always be a question of timing. Is it needed now? Absolutely."

Rohrer credited Gregory B. Murray, director of water quality operations, with bringing down costs.

"Greg Murray's wizardry has contributed incredibly to the fiscal picture as far as operating efficiency," he said. "Through Greg's ingenuity and working with boards of commissioners to refinance the debt, the county's been able to keep the rates considerably lower."

The Conococheague plant was built to accommodate growth mainly to the immediate west of Interstate 81. The county operates nine other wastewater treatment plants, nine water treatment facilities and the industrial pretreatment plant. While the county has attempted to steer new development into designated growth areas, Rohrer said some of that development "is at the mercy of the city (of Hagerstown) for available capacity."

The city recently limited new connections to the equivalent of about 600 homes. The restriction has been challenged by local developer Ben Shaool. The limits were set as a result of an agreement with the Maryland Department of the Environment to set limits on development in and near the city and to speed up improvements to the city's sewer treatment system.

The steps were the result of failures by the city sewage treatment plant's operation dating back several years.

For its part, the county's current comprehensive plan, due for revision in 2008, directs the county government to "limit expansion of public water and sewer facilities outside of designated growth areas to only those extensions necessary to address health issues."

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