A five-year sewer service plan for Montgomery County, which would allow fewer homes to be built annually than were permitted during recent sewer moratorium years, has become a major target of builders in the county.
Long-delayed sewer allocations are about to be issued to parts of the county under a development plan drawn up by the county council. Under the plan the county would allow the building of some 2,145 dwelling units annually for the next five years,compared with an average of 5,373 units a year between 1972 and 1976, when a state-imposed sewer moratorium was in effect.
Council figures also show that in the five-year period prior to the moratorium, the annual average of new dwelling units was 7,777.
The peak year was 1967, when 10,445 housing units were built, and the low year was 1976, which had only 2,032. The totals were relatively high in 1972 (7,582) and in 1973 (8,468), when the moratorium was in its early stage. In those years, builders were using up previously issued sewer tap allocations that were protected and sometimes resold (along with the land) for higher prices, because of the shortage situation.
"That's the crux of our problem," said builder-developer Jack Alfandre, a Bethesda resident who has built hundreds of moderately priced houses in this area since World War II. "That's one reason that our firm and others have been doing most of our home building in Northern Virginia in recent years."
Alfandre says there is available sewage capacity at Blue Plains and elsewhere that has not been allocated.
"The moratorium was ended in October, 1975, but builders are still waiting," he observed. "It seems we either have to create our own treatment facilties - such as a private consortium is doing at its own cost in the Rockville area - or go elswhere. I can build houses and sell them readily for less than $60,000 in Virginia but it's impossible to erve that market today in Montgomery."
A spokesman for the Montgomery Council said that studies were needed to effectively allocate existing sewer capacity. He pointed out that other efforts are under way to create more capacity with small treatment plants that would sovel the problem on a midterm basis. He also indicated that the current council is not of "one mind" in terms of the total problem of providing sewage treatment capacity for future growth.
The issue of future growth capacity, a broader tax base and a "perpetuation of the high cost of housing" also is a concern of Robert E. Brennan. Now president of Columbia Homes, which builds single houses in Montgomery County, and a former chairman of the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Brennan almost explodes when he discusses the sewer issue on the telephone. "It burns my cork," he said repeatly.
Early in the interview, Brennan said he was not yet prepared to announce that he will run for the Montgomery County Council as a Republican next year. But by the end of the conversation, in which he inveighed repeatedly against the higher costs of providing quarter-ace building lots (now $20,000 to $25,000) and the increasing costs of carrying zoned land and waiting for sewer taps, he said:
"You can say I'm going to run for County Council next year. This whole mess makes me mad. I'm tired of being horsed around and so are other people in building, development and land ownership. I know the problems and know that we're supposed to be able to produce moderate priced housing but that's impossible in a climate of development control by sewer control.
"I'm a taxpayer, a resident and a person concerned about the county. I know I'll be accused of representing special interests. Well, I refuse to believe that the issue is being handled correctly. The whole sewer thing has gotten to be completely political."
Brennan has much more to say on the topic. Essentially, he sees the need for more interim sewage treatment plants as a means of Montgomery County being able to provide sewer capacity for new industry and new dwellings. "We need more tax dollars from new sources, not increased taxes from current owners," he added.
Frank Lann, director of water resources for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said "some sewage treatment decisions have to be made," adding that Montgomery County needs additional capacity. But he cautioned that the locations and type of treatment plants are the issues, along with "technical solutions."
In addition to technical problems of treatment plants, their locations and which jurisdictions they serve, the area-wide sewage problems take on some local political connotations.
They involve the District and the Blue Plains plant and agreements with Maryland counties and the rivalry between Montgomery and Prince George's, which recently had a sewer ban lifted and thus received a green light for more home building in the 110-square-mile Largo, Upper Marlobor, Bowie and Greenbelt areas.
Meanwhile, parts of Montgomery County (in the Little Falls, Rock Creek and Anacostia basins) are still under some form of sewer moratoria. Thus, at the moment, it seems that Montgomery more than any other area county is inhibited in new residential growth.
In Virginia, Fairfax County has taken the lead in area residential and commercial development and now is attracting new businesses with many employees.
A moderate voice in Montgomery County belongs to a Virginia resident, Charles V. Phillips, senior vice president of the Montgomery Village-based Kettler Brothers' firm.
"It's a numbers game," Phillips said. "The requests for residential sewer taps are oversubscribed, double the left out and there could be court challenges by disgruntled builders."
One building firm is already disgruntled. Robert L. Mitchell, president of C-I/Mitchell and Best Co., builders in the eastern Potomac area, recently lost a court battle to have sewer tap requests considered. Mitchell said he instituted the suit four years ago when his firm was denied additional sewer taps for a new subdivision, Fallsreach, where it has land for 400 house but taps for only 100.
Prices of buildable land have escalated tremendously since the moratoria of 1972, Mitchell said.
"One example, in 1971, 60 acres for houses on half-acre lots was brought for $14,000 an acre," he said. "In 1975, comparable ground was selling for $25,000 an acre and now it's $40,000 an acre, even without sewer. That's why we're building $125,000 range houses."
One development that was inhibited several years by the lack of sewer, built its own treatment plant. The Rossmoor adult community in the Norbeck area put $3.6 million into a waste treatment plant on its own property and now has capacity of 300,000 gallons a day and a potential maximum of 750,000 gallons.
But Rossmoor does not necessarily treat its own sewage. It treats sewage coming out of the main Montgomery lines and then is alloed to build new housing in a compensating amounts, according to guidelines set by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.