For the second time in three years, a construction ban is in effect in Frederick County because of concerns that water supplies are inadequate for existing and approved development.
And the town involved thinks the state action is all wet.
The Maryland Department of the Environment imposed the moratorium on building permits in Middletown, a small but rapidly growing community west of the city of Frederick and a mile or so from Catoctin Creek.
In a letter, Environment Secretary Kendl P. Philbrick faulted local officials for continuing to issue permits despite two years of warnings from the state about the danger of development overwhelming the available water supply.
In April alone, 44 permits were approved, further widening the gap between the number of gallons Philbrick said the town of 3,000 is permitted to use daily and what it has been using recently.
He ordered that no additional permits be approved "until water capacity has reached sufficient levels" and concluded by informing Middletown Burgess John Miller that the department would deny the town's updated water and sewer master plan, too. "Based on the town's past response to guidance offered by MDE, there is considerable doubt that its water supply system will be better managed under the updated plan," he wrote.
Three years ago, as one of the worst droughts ever in Maryland was taking hold, Frederick declared its own moratorium. Officials feared the city was about to run dry after a decade of booming growth that had not been matched adequately by expansion of the infrastructure needed to bring water to those new developments.
Philbrick acknowledged in his letter that "rainfall has returned to above-normal levels and water is abundant right now."
But the state action was triggered by concerns that the pace of growth in Middletown could cause problems in the future. If everything currently projected is built in Middletown, department spokesman Richard McIntire said yesterday, "our concern is . . . they'll be above their allocation, and if we hit a drought, they'd run short."
Middletown officials contest such predictions start to finish. And given that the town's top leader didn't learn of the moratorium until getting Philbrick's correspondence last week -- despite being in a meeting with the secretary on the day the letter was written -- "we are pretty much disgusted" with the state, Miller declared yesterday.
"From a legal standpoint," he said, "if you're going to put a town under a moratorium, it ought to be because they violated their permitted usage. We have never done that. We will never do that."
The state's numbers are wrong, Miller said, and so are its calculations. Middletown has a usage permit for 314,500 gallons of water a day, not the 290,000 mentioned in Philbrick's letter, according to Miller. Average daily use over the last year has totaled about 280,000 gallons from its wells and springs, "in other words, well below our permit," he said.
The town's water conservation alert system is currently "code blue," with no restrictions, and a new well at the local golf course will start supplying 72,000 gallons a day as soon as the state gives its approval.
"The MDE wants us to be five steps ahead," Miller said. "We're a step ahead. We've never been behind."
Other communities in the state may face similar action soon, the Environment Department's spokesman indicated, although he declined to say where. Middletown bears the burden of proving to the state that it can meet future demand, by digging more wells or buying water from outside sources, to list two possibilities.
Miller has a meeting scheduled with Philbrick in two weeks to discuss the matter. He would like a quick meeting of the minds. "Truthfully, we're hoping to solve it that day," Miller said. "We'll see."