A neon sign in the lobby of Charles County's permitting office has flashed the same message since the summer of 2004: Applications to build homes in the golf course community of Swan Point are not accepted.
The sign's electronic announcement will keep scrolling this week as the county commissioners weigh whether to approve a new sewage treatment facility for the Potomac River enclave, which is home to some of the county's most prominent residents.
At a critical hearing Tuesday night, the commissioners will review plans from Brookfield Homes and U.S. Steel to build 1,500 houses, a marina and a hotel at Swan Point. But the undercurrent of the evening will be wastewater treatment. Until a new plant is approved, building cannot begin.
The commissioners put off that decision this month and are being squeezed from several directions, with all sides attempting to stake out the environmental high ground.
"We have an opportunity to be a model community, to be the place people point to and say, 'They understood how to balance development with the environment in this fragile area,' " said Commissioner Candice Quinn Kelly (R-La Plata). "Why not take a few more weeks and do it right?"
U.S. Steel, owner of the property in southern Charles, wants to begin building the treatment plant as soon as next month. The homeowners association, which represents more than 500 people, endorsed that plan last week and intends to speak in favor of the development Tuesday.
Ken Robinson, president of the Swan Point Property Owners Association, said the proposed facility would add capacity for current residents and is the type of state-of-the-art plant that would improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
Another Swan Point resident, Del. W. Daniel Mayer (R-Charles), also has pressed the commissioners to approve the building permit. He told them that any further delays would put the project in jeopardy.
"We must take the rhetoric out of this discussion and proceed with the approved plant," Mayer, a former commissioner, wrote in a letter to the board. "I think the energy and the time of public input over two decades have been enough, and it is time to move on."
A small but vocal group of area residents disagrees. County taxpayers ultimately would pay to own and operate whatever facility would be built, and some neighbors of the project are not convinced that the proposed discharge into Cuckold Creek would be any cleaner than that of the existing plant.
Andy Bilmanis, whose mother lives in nearby Woodland Point, favors an alternative method of spraying treated sewage over fields, similar to the practice at Breeze Farm, which serves the waterfront community of Cobb Island.
"I'm not for shutting down growth, but why pollute the water when we have another solution?" he said. "The technology has advanced from 'flush it down the stream.' "
At a meeting this month, commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large) suggested spraying some of the treated sewage on the golf course at Swan Point, an option the Maryland Department of the Environment does not allow.
The department's stance prompted Kelly to ask, "If it's not safe enough to go on land, how in the world are you going to convince me it's safe enough to go into the creek?''
In a letter responding to Bilmanis's suggestions, U.S. Steel regional manager Jon G. Dunn said he, too, is interested in "preserving the quality of our public waters for future generations."
Dunn said the design of the Swan Point development, with a forested buffer along the shoreline and new sewage treatment system, would "have a greater impact than pursuing a costly and time-consuming solution relative to the spray discharge of treated effluent."