Frederick officials said this month that new construction will be allowed again -- a major announcement, given that virtually nothing has been built in the city since March 2001, when most work was halted because of a water shortage.
But for anyone who hasn't followed the city's water woes closely, it may have been hard to tell what a landmark pronouncement it really was.
"In a three nil vote this morning the City of Frederick's Water Service Committee approved the adoption of Administrative Guidelines for citywide water allocation," read the opening sentence of a densely worded announcement April 2 from City Hall.
Translation: The taps are back on for developers in Frederick. But you won't hear city officials saying it loudly.
A new caution has taken hold in Frederick and in other areas hard hit by last year's drought. Even after four months of heavy precipitation, officials across the region are allocating water supplies cautiously.
This month, the city received clearance from the Maryland Department of the Environment to change the way it draws water from various sources, which has increased the city's daily water-supply capacity by about 260,000 gallons, to nearly 10 million gallons. That extra store of water allows the city to allocate water to the first round of developments on a master list of projects waiting for clearance to be built.
Once those projects are underway -- several will begin in the coming week -- developers will have to wait until the city gets more water, probably from drilling new wells, before a new round of projects can begin.
"Once they give out the water for the first round, we're back to zero," said Steve Oder, a board member of the Frederick County Builders Association who has acted as liaison between city officials and builders for the past year. "They've got to continually look for different sources, or the building will just stop."
In September, Frederick's Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance that dictates which planned developments get water, and when, and how much. Virtually unheard-of on the East Coast, except in two North Carolina cities, Frederick's approach mirrors methods used by cities in the West, where water allocation has been a painful issue for as long as the area has been inhabited.
The regional drought, which began in fall 2001 and became the worst in decades, was declared dead in December by state agencies. But in Frederick, the drought's effects have lingered because of the strain growth has placed on water supplies.
Through the 1990s, Frederick grew faster than officials had anticipated, to a current population of 52,000, and the city did not build adequate infrastructure for bringing water to new houses. In March 2001, fearing that the city was about to run out of water, then-Mayor James S. Grimes (R) imposed what was to have been a 30-day halt to most new construction. But the moratorium lasted, in various forms, more than two years.
"The building moratorium is over," Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty (D) said last week. "We're in a new normal. We're going to be very judicious, and we're not going to get in this mess again."
Although they are happy that the building ban is over, some developers complained that city officials disregarded the moratorium's economic impact and allowed it to go on far too long.
One of Frederick's largest builders, Ausherman Homes, filed a lawsuit in Frederick County Circuit Court this month alleging that the city violated a 1989 contract guaranteeing ample water for a 1,500-home development called Whittier.
Construction on the housing subdivision was halted with about 400 planned homes unbuilt. Though work on some of the houses will begin again now, the company's losses have been "horrific," said Marvin Ausherman, the company's president.
Developers and city officials agree that the moratorium has cast a pall on the economy, with construction jobs lost and companies wary of relocating to a city where new construction has been strictly limited.
"Typically, government is able to address these kinds of problems and get us back to work, but we saw no end in sight," Ausherman said. "The city would not cooperate with us, we saw no resolution on the horizon at all, and we felt like we had to take a position."
City officials said they have cooperated with builders in trying to find a way out of the crisis.
"We've all been working very hard and diligently to come up with supplemental [water] sources and come up with an allocation ordinance that is fair and equitable," said City Attorney Heather Price Smith. "The developers were involved when we were developing the ordinances. They made recommendations, and we tried to incorporate them."
While other jurisdictions have not adopted measures as comprehensive as Frederick's, many states and municipalities are devising formal plans for dealing with water shortages, said William E. Cox, a professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech and a water-management specialist.
Cox was part of a task force established by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to help municipalities and counties draft water-supply plans. The task force "noted a fairly steady decline in water-supply planning" by local governments, Cox said. "There is this general sentiment, aside from the immediate drought, that we ought to do something to restore a higher level of [planning] activity."
Maryland has long required municipalities to demonstrate that they have enough water for new developments. Yet the state seldom enforces that rule and offers no guidance on how to predict water needs. As a result, Frederick officials say, there is a hodgepodge of water-use planning approaches across the state.
At the height of the city's water crisis, the city had just more than a month's supply left in its reservoirs. Officials were planning to truck in water from the Potomac River, 20 miles away, which could have cost $40,000 a day.
With that memory in her mind, Dougherty said, the city "will not issue building permits until the water is available."
"Not everyone is satisfied with that, by any means," she said, "but we will give them what we can."