With an annual growth rate of 29 percent and a population projected to reach half a million by the year 2000, Anne Arundel County is the burgeoning bedroom of Baltimore, Annapolis and Washington--at least on paper.
But in planned subdivisions in and around Glen Burnie in the northern part of the county, construction has been halted by an all-too-familiar developmental roadblock--sludge, the residue of sewage treatment.
State-imposed restrictions on the capacity of the Cox Creek sewage treatment plant led to a recent building permit moratorium affecting about 2,200 residential, commercial and industrial lots already approved by the county's Department of Planning and Zoning.
Thomas Neel, director of Anne Arundel's Utilities Bureau, said Cox Creek's capacity cannot be expanded until its inventory of sludge is removed, possibly through an incineration process being discussed with the Baltimore Gas & Electric Co.
Subdivisions affected by the May 16 moratorium include Fox Chase, Cottage Grove, Elizabeth's Landing, Stoneybrook Village, Turf Valley and Chesterfield.
Caught in the crunch are hundreds of prospective homeowners who signed contracts for houses before building permits were issued for them. Nineteen such people, some fearing they will soon be homeless, were at a County Council last week meeting to talk about their plight.
Joseph Carrier, 22, of Odenton, Md., is an accountant who signed a contract for a $62,000 town house in Millersville that he and his fiancee' hoped to move into in October, a month after their wedding.
"That decision came as a complete surprise, out of the blue, bingo," Carrier said. "And that's why we're so angry."
James and Leslie Aschemeier already have sold their Annapolis house and hoped to return to their native Glen Burnie with their 3-year-old son in July. They counted on a two-story house that would have been built in August Acres.
"We have no idea where we're going to live if we don't get our house," Leslie Aschemeier said.
County Executive O. James Lighthizer, who imposed the moratorium after learning that the Cox Creek plant was overloaded, said the decision had to be made quickly because of a faulty flow reading at the plant. The plant registered 8.3 million gallons of sewage a day instead of 9.075 million, he said, a number that went unchecked by the county and was "not picked up" by the state.
Though the plant was originally designed to process 15 million gallons, a sludge problem caused the Maryland health department to impose a 9.6 million limit. The plant is probably exceeding that number, since additional permits were issued after last year's reading, Lighthizer said. "I don't know if it was our fault or the state's fault, but in either case that was a 600,000-gallon error," he said.
Neel said that in other parts of Anne Arundel, subdivisions served by the Patuxent and Broadneck plants also are restricted. He said the federal Environmental Protection Agency is studying five of Anne Arundel's nine plants with an eye to possible sludge removal solutions that include composting, which converts the sludge to soil by mixing it with bulking agents, and land application, which uses it as fertilizer.
Linda Smeyne, a Maryland health department spokeswoman, said Anne Arundel's problem is not unlike those facing other fast-growing counties. The list includes Howard and Montgomery, where sewage capacity has not kept pace with construction, and densely populated areas such as Washington, Baltimore and Baltimore County, where sludge problems have troubled environmentalists for decades.
Lighthizer said that if he had not imposed a moratorium, the state health department probably would have stepped in with a much stricter solution.
County officials and residents at last week's meeting tended to agree. "You can blame him and then again you can't," Leslie Aschemeier said. "If he had let the state do it, then we probably would have been 90 years old before we had seen our house."
Lighthizer said he is asking that building permits be allowed for homes already under contract. He has promised to meet this week with prospective homeowners affected by the moratorium.
"Either I'll tell them, 'You've got a very long wait' or I'll tell them, 'You've got a very short wait,' " he said.
Smeyne said the state health department has not decided on Lighthizer's proposals, but that "there have been such agreements in the past." She cited one in Baltimore County, which imposed a similar moratorium earlier this year but approved some permits "on a one for one basis" as older buildings were taken off the sewer system.
The last moratorium Anne Arundel County imposed in the Cox Creek area lasted a year, from early 1981 to 1982. Officials would not estimate this one's duration.
Tom DeLorge, who said he saved for 10 years to buy his first home only to see it stalled by the moratorium, said, "The general feeling is more or less like we've been standing in line at the grocery store with a basket full of groceries for three hours and the cashier puts a 'closed' sign up. I have $80,000 worth of groceries; they're gonna spoil."