A majority of residents of the Society Hill neighborhood south of Leonardtown who responded to a survey have rejected a St. Mary's County proposal to connect them to a public water system after recent failures of private wells.

"It's pretty clear there's not enough public interest in that area for a public system," said Steven L. King, director of the Metropolitan Commission, the public water and sewer commission for St. Mary's County. Most homeowners said they would prefer to replace or improve their own wells.

Of the 157 property owners in the neighborhood, 108 responded to a county survey seeking their views on water options. On Tuesday, King presented the survey results to the county commissioners. The proposal for a public water system was opposed by 71 property owners and supported by 35. Two respondents expressed no preference between wells and a public water system.

In recent weeks, at least seven wells have failed in the neighborhood next to Breton Bay. Since 1990, some 36 wells in the area have failed or suffered problems, King said. Some residents have at times resorted to running hoses from a neighbor's outside spigot in order to have drinking water.

"And the problem is getting worse," King said.

The Metropolitan Commission proposed building a $900,000 public system. When financed over 30 years, the system would cost each customer $30 a month, or a flat charge of $352 a year, plus a $12 monthly water bill. The commission proposed digging a public well, then running water mains in the neighborhood. King estimated that replacing all the individual failing private wells would cost more than $1 million.

Despite the purported cost difference, many Society Hill residents campaigned against the proposal.

"We felt in the long run, when you start adding up the cost [of the MetCom proposal], it was more cost-effective to build our own well," said Catherine Smith, one of the residents who voted against the proposed public system.

"It's just like anything else. After 20 to 25 years, things are going to go. And that's what we chose to do with ours," said Diane Krafty, another resident who voted against the proposal. She replaced her well in 1995.

By their calculations, Smith and Krafty said that spending $5,000 to $8,000 on a new well was cheaper in the long run than MetCom's proposal for a public system. In addition, Smith said there was no guarantee that the public well, too, would not run dry.

"Then who's going to pay for that [new public well]?" asked Smith, who has been using a private well for 26 years.

Residents also objected to the proposed public system because it would have required them to cap all private wells. "We didn't want to cap a perfectly good well," Smith said.

King said it was the choice of the neighborhood to go with private wells and "this is not a health hazard situation."

"I am surprised so many are against it, but I'd suggest they just didn't have time to study the situation. I really think this is a time factor," said Commissioner Shelby P. Guazzo (R-Chaptico). With more time to consider the benefits of a public system, residents would have voted in favor of it, Guazzo said.

Officials have attributed well problems at Society Hill to dropping ground-water levels, reduced water pressure caused by too many wells tapping into the aquifer, and old wells that were drilled and piped in a way that now prevents pumps from being lowered farther to reach the receding water level, King said.