Something smells in Lewistown.
To hear Michael L. Cady tell it, just 50 miles from the nation's capital, the people in Lewistown, a tiny crossroads in Frederick County, have resorted to using outhouses because of chronically failing septic systems.
The problem is so bad that fetid swamps form in people's back yards after heavy rains, creating the potential for contaminated wells and other health hazards, said Cady (R), vice president of the Frederick Board of County Commissioners. Some people have spent large sums of money on sewage storage tanks and ugly sand mounds to treat the waste.
Cady, saying he was honoring a campaign pledge to correct a terrible situation, has backed changing the county's water and sewer regulations to allow small, privately funded sewage treatment plants in areas of "special concern," including Lewistown.
In fact, Cady said, J. Tyler Quynn, a landowner in Lewistown, has stepped forward with just such a plan. Quynn would like to build a small, privately funded sewage treatment plant off Fish Hatchery Road that could solve septic problems for himself and about 20 other families. But the county's regulations will not permit it, Cady said, despite a situation that is grave.
"The expression, 'They drink their crap' is not far from being true," Cady wrote in an e-mail to fellow commissioners last month. "There are failing septic systems causing residents to revert back to out houses."
The drive up scenic Route 15 to Lewistown from the city of Frederick takes only about 10 minutes. Once there, with the Catoctin Mountains slumbering in a bed of green to the west, a strikingly different view emerges in the search for an outhouse.
"Around here? In this area?" wondered Chris Sipple, who is 20 years old and, although a newcomer from Montgomery County, unable to recall seeing any outhouses in town.
"I have never heard of anybody having to put in an outhouse," said Linda Poore, 55, who has lived in Lewistown for 28 years.
"Someone's exaggerating," said Dick Baseley, 70, who was catching up on chitchat at Martin's Grocery. "Call Mr. Cady and ask him to come give you a tour of all the outhouses in Lewistown."
Baseley, a retired IBM employee who now tends a gentleman's farm, said it's true that several Lewistown homes have septic problems. One woman acknowledged using a port-a-john, but that was only while renovations to her home were going on. And two of the newest, stateliest homes in town also have sand mounds with pipes sticking out of them that act like aboveground septic systems.
But Baseley said he suspected that the idea of building a wastewater treatment plant was simply a pretext for opening the area to the kind of housing development that sweeps farther and farther out from Washington each year.
Similar proposals in Lewistown have been raised and shot down before. The last such ruckus involved a proposed development of 500 houses, shops and businesses in Lewistown. Before it died, the plan -- which also promised to address the sewage problem -- triggered a petition, fraud allegations between neighbors and a lawsuit the court characterized as an attempt by developers to harass a slow-growth advocate. One of the driving forces behind those plans was Tyler Quynn, the would-be builder of the sewage treatment plant.
County employees have been asked to study the proposed sewage treatment plant and report to the board next month. But the idea already has widened fissures on the board over growth.
Commissioner Jan H. Gardner (D) said the proposal could be disastrous for the county. For one thing, the county several years ago banned private water and sewage systems after several failed and the county was forced to acquire and operate them at great cost.
Further, she said the rule Cady has proposed could open the entire county, not just Lewistown, to the possibility of privately owned treatment plants again.
"This is about them wanting to develop their property," Gardner said.
Proponents say the slow-growth camp's fears are unjustified.
"Our impressions are they'd rather have the people there suffer rather than risk opening up the area to development," said Rocky Mackintosh, vice president of Defenders of Citizens Rights Inc. "Nobody is looking to open up Lewistown to any kind of major development up there."
Little has changed since the town was laid out in the Monocacy River Valley in 1815 with 204 properties. The town, initially settled by pioneers and Hessians at the end of the Revolutionary War, grew along Fishing Creek. From the start of the 20th century until the 1960s, the mill ponds and other nearby areas were transformed into the open pools of a commercial fish hatchery, and the small town became known as "the goldfish capital of the world."
These days, life in the small town revolves around the elementary school, the volunteer fire department and two churches. Talk at Martin's Grocery was about the Lewistown Ruritan Club gearing up for its annual chicken barbecue.
The homes are supplied with wells and septic tanks. These separate solid wastes from liquid and purify the effluent as it leaches through the ground. But because of the topography and soil types in Lewistown, many septic systems fail to drain properly, a problem recognized as far back as 1969.
"Only after a heavy rain, you can smell it, and it's not just my house. The whole area of Lewistown, you can smell the sewage," said postal employee Charles J. Baer, 34, who supports the sewage plant. Without it, Baer said, he would still have to keep his children from playing in the yard some days.
"It's about clean water and having a better quality of life," he said.
Enter Quynn. Inside the large concrete fish hatchery building on Quynn's land is his war room. On the walls are some archery equipment, a U.S. Navy SEALS flag in honor of his two sons, zoning maps and a blueprint of a sewage treatment plant.
Quynn said he and his wife, Patricia, initially wanted to renovate the hatchery ponds and build a house. But they have been thwarted from building anything because the property will not support a septic system, he said. Their only option is to hook up to a sewage treatment plant, which at one point had been planned for the community.
"Now we're back trying again," Quynn said.
State, county and courthouse records show that Quynn has battled several times, with varying degrees of success, for permission to build a small sewage treatment plant on his property.
In June 1995, Quynn and several partners also sought approval for Lewistown Mills, a 500-unit mixed-use development spread across 164 acres and several properties.
After the defeat of the housing and sewage proposals, the Quynns and their partners sued the county. They also named Linda McCroddan, who, as president of the Lewistown Utica Civic Association, had led opposition to their plans. The lawsuit, later dismissed as baseless, was characterized by a Circuit Court judge as litigation designed solely to harass a political opponent.
"Therefore, a lot of people are afraid to speak out against the Quynns because they're afraid they'll get sued," Gardner said.
In July 1997, Quynn obtained a permit from the Maryland Department of the Environment for a 4,990-gallon-a-day treatment plant on his land. That permit is in the process of renewal, department spokesman Richard McIntire said last week.
But Quynn's state permit has a catch: It can serve only one property. To hook up others, Quynn must have county approval. And though previous slow-growth administrations have been unfriendly to the idea, the last election has tilted the board back to a more friendly stance toward development.
"A sewage treatment plant here would complement the underused infrastructure," said Quynn, who declined to be more specific about future development plans. "If you go back and look at our [housing development proposal], it's nothing but smart growth. Every lot you don't use in Lewistown is going to send you out into farmland."
But others, such as Baseley, are skeptical of Quynn's plans and the notion that building in the country is the only way to handle population growth.
"Growth is inevitable?" he asked rhetorically. "So is death. Why not do that right now?"