Alison Taylor, a self-described armchair environmentalist, has carefully observed drought restrictions at her home in Leonardtown: She waters her plants and flushes the toilet with bath water, her old oak trees are dying and she gave up on her lawn long ago.
So what she saw as she drove by a new construction site in St. Mary's County recently made her cry--for the loss of trees and wildlife as the farming landscape is developed and, especially, for the extra burden on the aquifers that supply water to up to 30,000 wells in Southern Maryland. Tough water restrictions are changing daily life for the families that rely on those wells, she said.
Taylor, 50, decided to channel her concern about the water supply into a petition that asks the St. Mary's County commissioners to impose a temporary moratorium on new construction. The ban would apply to projects that haven't received final approval.
The petition also seeks a water study to determine how long it would take to replenish the area's two major aquifers--Aquia and Patapsco.
Since Taylor started her effort Aug. 12, she has gathered more than 100 signatures from folks in grocery stores, greenhouses and even political offices. Copies of her petition sit in the Great Mills office of state Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's) and in local businesses.
"While we're on restrictions, there are builders merrily tapping into the aquifer," Taylor said this week. "Guys with the money and political clout are the builders. It's the little guy with the well going dry who is hurting."
When she started circulating the petition, questions arose as to whether the commissioners even wield the power to implement such a temporary ban without risking lawsuits from developers. They can introduce the ban, according to the county's attorney, but such a move would bring immediate controversy.
From Aug. 6 to Tuesday, the St. Mary's Planning and Zoning Department received 67 new zoning applications. The office issued 22 building permits for single-family houses during the same period, said Jane Robeson, the department's inspections coordinator. Presumably, if the water-related moratorium were in effect, those building permits could not be granted.
Commissioner Joseph F. Anderson (D-Drayden) said that he understands the frustrations of the current water shortage but worries about the far-reaching effects that a halt on construction would have on the county's economy.
"Enforcing a moratorium is an option, but it has to be based on a rational review of health, safety and welfare issues," Anderson said.
"If you put a ban on building, that would impact hundreds of jobs, and companies would stop doing business with the local hardware store. It could have a significant impact."
He said the board hasn't met formally to discuss the issue. He stressed that such an action has not been ruled out, but said that such moratoriums are rare because of the divisions they can create in communities.
Anderson said the petition may turn out to be a helpful tool to gauge local feelings, especially at a time when the commissioners are revising the county's zoning ordinance.
Water concerns are crucial in the county's planning, he said. Last year, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources commissioned a study that showed the Aquia aquifer could reach its capacity to supply water within 25 years.
Meanwhile, Taylor's petition circulates around the county. A copy of it is on hand for customers to sign at Cook's Greenery, off Route 5 in Park Hall.
Nancy Smith, the farm and feed store's manager, describes the Greenery as an informal community meeting place, where you can find just as many opinions as types of seeds.
But the petition attracted just six signatures in four days at the store, perhaps signifying longtime residents' doubts about the need for dramatic measures, Smith said.
"Development has been a big issue, but with the drought situation, people are really talking about it," Smith said.
"We have a few customers whose wells have dried up or who have large gardens. . . . [But] some people say there's nothing to worry about, that there's no way the aquifer could dry up."
Taylor said she has heard some of the same doubts and knows that prospects for a building ban are weak, but that won't stop her from canvassing her community.
"If I didn't try it, I couldn't live with myself," she said. "If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. At least I tried."