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Howard County Soil Conservation Agency Runs Out of Money, Stranding Developers

By Larry Carson
The Baltimore Sun
Sunday, August 30, 2009

Howard County's recession-battered development industry shut down Friday, potentially stranding more than 20 projects because the independent agency that reviews erosion and sediment plans ran out of money to pay two workers.

But later in the day, Howard County Soil Conservation District officials said they have a plan to avert a crisis and would have one plan reviewer working Monday.

"It's going to come about," said Bill Barnes, a county farmer who is chairman of the district's Board of Supervisors. He refused to say, however, how the worker would be paid.

The two plan reviewers had been told not to return to work until the funding problem is solved. The County Council is to vote Sept. 8 on a proposed fee schedule for builders that will provide money to pay them.

A shutdown could push some projects closer to the financial brink as Howard, like every local government, struggles to manage revenue declines resulting from the economic slowdown.

Builders are caught between the county government and the Soil Conservation District. They don't want to pay new fees, but they are more unhappy about work on their plans stopping.

"It's unbelievable," said developer Joseph Rutter, who added that he has several projects awaiting review by the Soil Conservation District and has never seen a shutdown in more than three decades of experience.

County Executive Ken Ulman (D) cut funding for the two soil district jobs as an economy move, expecting county planners and engineers to take over the work. But soil district leaders who run the independent state agency nixed that, claiming it would compromise the reviews' integrity.

District Manager Robert R. Ensor said he would begin charging builders fees to pay his employees, but he ran out of money before the council could approve them. He shocked county officials Thursday with a short letter informing them that the shutdown would begin Friday.

Ulman responded immediately, offering to lend Ensor a qualified county engineer to do the work at no cost, but late Friday, county officials said Ensor had rejected the offer.

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