The Montgomery County Council ended the county's most recent sewer moratorium yesterday by making available enough sewage treatment capacity to permit construction of an estimated 14,000 housing units and accelerate other kinds of development over the next eight to 10 years.
County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist described the action as relieving a "crisis atmosphere" and creating "competition in the marketplace that should help produce available housing in every price range."
An official of the Suburban Maryland Home Builders Association said the action could help lower skyrocketing land prices in the county that are partly inflated by the sewer scarcity.
The added treatment capacity -- 9 million gallons a year at the regional Blue Plains sewage plant -- results from a policy change by the council that alters the method of alloting sewer hookups.
From now on, developers will be granted hookups when they are ready to build, on a first-come, first-served basis.
Hitherto, the county had permitted sewage treatment capacity to be reserved for projects still in the planning stage, some of which would not be built for years.
Last spring, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission declared a sewer moratorium in Montgomery decause figures showed the county had filled its allocated capacity at the Blue Plain plant in Southeast Washington. The agency, which provides sewer and water service for Montgomery and Prince George's counties, manages the plant for the surrounding jurisdictions.
A Montgomery County task force discovered that far less sewage was flowing to Blue Plains from Montgomery than the figures indicated because builders were allowed to reserve treatment capacity far in advance of construction that actually contributed to sewage flows.
The WSSC endorsed the plan to free capacity by changing the county's policy on allocations.
Although council members seemed pleased with the new policy, several expressed concern that it would slow efforts to encourage development of housing for low-income families.
Previously, developers who promised to price at least 25 percent of units in a residential project for low-and moderate-income families were given priority for sewer hookups. That will not be possible under the new first-come, first-served policy.
"This is preferable to what we had, but we're losing the leverage to get the development we want," said council member Scott Fosler.
Council members agreed to explore other incentives such as providing financial assistance or speeding up the premit-review process.
Council President Neal Potter pledged to continue efforts to resolve a dispute with Prince George's County over sewage capacity at Blue Plains and to continue seeking alternative methods of sewage disposal.
"Let's not let this (the allocation policy change) lull us into a false sense of security,' Potter said.