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County staff worried about meeting Water Resource Element deadline

September 02, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Washington County staff members said they are worried they will not be able to add a Water Resources Element to the county's comprehensive plan in time to meet a state deadline after the Washington County Commissioners decided Tuesday not to pay for a consultant to do the work.

A state law passed in 2006 requires counties and some municipalities to have WREs, or documents that address how their water resources will keep pace with planned growth.

Water supplies in Maryland are facing increasing demand from a growing population, and the requirement for WREs was meant to ensure development does not occur without sufficient planning, according to a presentation from Water Management Administration Director Robert M. Summers on the Maryland Department of the Environment Web site.

If counties and municipalities do not comply by a deadline, they lose their power to change zoning, the law says.

Washington County Planning Director Michael C. Thompson said the county agreed to hire a consultant to prepare the WREs or parts of the WREs for the county, the City of Hagerstown, and the towns of Hancock, Williamsport and Smithsburg.

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But when the time came for the commissioners to award the contract for the consulting work, a majority was unwilling to do so.

The consulting firm that was recommended based on a proposal review and interview process would have charged almost $150,000 for the work, purchasing agent Karen R. Luther said.

Commissioner James F. Kercheval made a motion to award the contract to that firm, but his motion died for lack of a second.

Commissioner William J. Wivell said he was concerned about spending $150,000 for what he feared would be a "worthless study," without knowing what positive benefit the document would provide.

"It sounds to me like another mandate from the state that creates a worthless paper, while at the same time they're not providing any funding and they're actually cutting funding," Wivell said, refering to the state's $210 million reduction in local aid announced last week.

Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire said he, too, had questions about the work's value.

"I'm looking at this $150,000 and asking myself what are we really giving the state that is of value that we don't have or cannot reasonably come up with," Aleshire said.

Wivell suggested having county staff create the WRE with the information already available.

However, Thompson said some of the towns that were to be included in the contract did not have the capability to do that, and he said he was concerned county staff members would not be able to meet the deadline.

In addition to showing how water supply will keep up with growth, the WRE also must address the pollutant loads that reach waterways, factoring in the effects of wastewater treatment, septic tanks and stormwater runoff. The stormwater element is particularly complicated and could require sorting through data that isn't in an electronic format, Thompson said.

The law's original deadline was Oct. 1, 2009, but counties and municipalities are allowed up to two six-month extensions, he said.

Thompson warned that losing the power to change zoning classifications was a serious consequence, but Wivell said he was prepared to take the risk.

"If the state wants to say, 'You can't zone,' then have at it," he said.

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