Sonia and Allan Dansie bought a home in Calverton in the mid-1960's, believing, like thousands of other families who moved into the community during those years, that they had found the comfortable house and the quiet neighborhood for which they yearned.
For the past two years, though, the community, of 25,000, split by the Prince George's-Montgomery County border, has been embroiled in a dispute over a sludge composting facility that has set the two powerful counties at each other's political throats and spawned five lawsuits.
The Montgomery County Council, in the fall of 1977, approved building by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) of the $34 million facility on a site less than a mile from Calverton.
The latest development came last week when, after a call for help from Montgomery officials, Federal District Judge John Smith reaffirmed a 1978 order requiring the WSSC build a composting facility in Montgomery County.
In his original order, Smith said that each jurisdiction using the Blue Plains Sewer Treatment Plant would have to dispose of its own sludge. However, there is disagreement between the two counties over whether, in last week's order, Smith meant that the WSSC must build the facility in Calverton or can choose any site so long as it builds a permanent composting facility somewhere in Montgomery.
The Prince George's County government and the Calverton Civic Association, however, are backing four other suits, now in court, which could delay or permanently shelve the project.
"It just doesn't seem right -- Montgomery just coming in here and playing politics with our health in order to get concessions from Prince George's in water and sewer negotiations," said Sonia Dansie, who moved to Calverton to be near her daughter, then a patient at the Great Oak center for the mentally retarded.
The composting facility, which would turn sludge -- a solid by-product of the sewage treatment process -- into fertilizer, was Montgomery's answer to the problem of where to dispose of its share of sludge produced at the Blue Plains Sewer Treatment Plant in southeast Washington.
Montgomery must build a disposal facility to comply with a 1978 court order from Judge Smith that requires each jurisdiction in metropolitan Washington to dispose of its share of the sludge produced at Blue Plains.
Over the past year, the Calverton site has become a hot political issue, pitting the Montgomery County Council and Montgomery members of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) against their counterparts in Prince George's. Caught in the middle are WSSC staff members and the residents of Calverton, all of whom feel that another, more remotely located site would be more economical and less disruptive of community life.
For the past two and a half years the middle-income residents of Calverton have campaigned against the proposed composting facility, which would be located upwind from their neighborhood of rolling green lawns and comfortable homes.
They worry that the plant would produce a pungent smell and that germs released in the composting process would threaten their health and that of their children.
"Anybody with respiratory problems is going to suffer if they build this plant," said Doris Walsh, a resident of Calverton for 16 years and a member of the civic association. She says that a fungus which probably would be released from the plant, called aspergillus fumigatus, would be a health hazard.
"We're being used as guinea pigs," said Walsh. "Nobody knows what effect these germs would have on our health."
WSSC officials say that studies have been done on the fungus by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Maryland Department of Health, among other government agencies, but opinions on the its effects are divided.
"It's generally agreed that the fungus would probably not affect healthy people, but there is disagreement about what effect it would have on those with respiratory illnesses," said Don Bogt, chief of the WSSC Engineering Project section.
"A smaller version of this composting project has already been tried up in Beltsville and anybody who travels the Baltimore-Washington Parkway with their windows rolled down knows its there," said Walsh. "We just aren't going to stand for them building one in our neighborhood."
Some Calverton residents believe Montgomery's move to build the plant in Calverton was politically motivated -- that Montgomery officials want Prince George's to give them added sewer capacity in exchange for the relocation of the composting facility.
"It's one heck of a way for Montgomery County to get back at Prince George's without directly interfering in the county's day-to-day affairs," said Calverton Civic Association President Bill Sykora.
"Montgomery wants something from Prince George's in sewer negotiations so they decide to put this undesirable facility on their eastern border nearest a Prince George's community," Sykora added. "I don't think anyone could have developed a better political strategy for needling Prince George's than this."
Montgomery officials counter that politics was the furthest thing from their minds when they decided to locate the composting plant in Calverton.
"Montgomery, like every other jurisdiction in metropolitan Washington was ordered to dispose of its own sludge and that's exactly what we set about to do," said WSSC chairman and Montgomery commissioner David Scotton. "This site was the most economical and the one for which we got a state permit, so why shouldn't we proceed with the work."
Scotton says that the county's present policy of trenching sludge has "eaten up a lot prime real estate" and that if another site were chosen, the Montgomery officials would face similar opposition from othe citizens who do not want a composting facility in their neighborhood.
"We'd face the same problems in finding a new site as we faced this time around," said Scotton. "Now, if the judge had told us to look for another site we would have done so.
"We're not trying to be obstinate or waste the taxpayers' money, but what it comes down to is that this is the site that the county, the state, and the courts have approved. Unless these essential facts change, our work on the project will continue."
For the past two years, WSSC officials have attempted to reach an agreement on purchasing the land for the project. But a split between the WSSC commissioners, along county lines, prevented the project from being included in the proposed fiscal 1981 capital improvement budget.
The 1981 budget is now being reviewed by the Montgomery and Prince George's county councils. The two groups will meet together late this month to decide the fate of the composting facility and the rest of the capital and operating budgets of the WSSC.
At that time the two councils must decide what to do about the federal court order requiring that they build the Calverton plant. They will also have to consider the several lawsuits filed in Montgomery and Prince George's Circuit Courts challenging the WSSC's right to build the plant in Calverton.
Calverton residents, the Prince George's County government, and owners of the land on which the proposed site is to be built have filed suits that accuse the WSSC of attempting to break convenants limiting the use of the Calverton land and of locating the composting facility plant on a site which would threaten the health of Calverton residents.
Even the WSSC staff has misgivings about the wisdom of the project. Last year, the bicounty agency's general manager recommended that the two counties build a small experimental composting facility for both counties in an area far away from large communities.
In a memo this year, dated Jan. 14, the WSSC's general counsel urged the commission to abandon the Calverton project because if pursued it would possibly lock the WSSC in a complex web of lawsuits which could delay the start of the project for three to four years, doubling the price of the land, and boosting construction costs.
Yet, plans for the project continue and condemnation proceedings for the land have been rescheduled to begin in late May or June.
"It's one of the most bizarre cases I've ever handled," said Aaron Handleman, attorney for the Calverton Civic Association. "Prince George's and Calverton don't want it, the WSSC really doesn't want it, and I'm not really sure Montgomery County wants it. To be quite frank, I think it's almost like a political kidnapping with the people of Calverton being held hostage."