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Town Poised to Restrict Residential Growth

Vic Bradshaw
Frederick News Post

The details still need to be finalized, and the ordinance must be written and approved. But one thing seemed clear following a Wednesday night workshop held by the town’s board of commissioners.

Emmitsburg is poised to set limits on residential and commercial growth. After weeks of discussion, the board decided to restrict growth to help the town prevent raw sewage spills and possibly reduce the fines it would face if spill problems continue. The number of building permits the town will issue annually will be determined after a study of the sewer system is completed.

By the time that study is completed, the growth ordinance is advertised properly, and a public hearing is held, it likely will be February or March before the restrictions are enacted. Also, because of changes suggested, the limits may only last one construction season instead of the three years initially discussed.

The decision seemed to be influenced by a mysterious letter from the Maryland Department of the Environment. The letter, which Commissioner Art Elder received anonymously in the mail, said the department can limit sewer connections if spill problems persist.

On Thursday, MDE officials verified that the letter was legitimate but wouldn’t disclose the citizen it was sent to because that person requested anonymity.

The original concept of the growth plan called for restricting new residential building permits to 25 per year for three years while town infrastructure was repaired. Permits would be issued based on a formula detailed in the plan, and the board reserved the right to issue up to five extra permits each year for hardship cases.

By the meeting’s end, however, the commissioners seemed intent on raising the number of permits allotted annually and condensing the restriction period.

Because the measure is tied to sewer-system problems, the board seemed set on reevaluating the situation two months after the North Sewer Trunk Rehabilitation Project is completed and possibly removing the limits the following month. The replacement-line project is expected to be completed in late 2004.

Commercial and industrial permits, which had been excluded, seem certain to be added to the ordinance in some form.

The commissioners moved toward imposing the restrictions after John Clapp, the town’s attorney, told them they could limit building. He said placing caps on building wasn’t "inherently impermissible" in Maryland and that he found no case law in which state courts ruled on a challenged building restrictions.

Mr. Clapp also advised the board to tie its action to its sewage concerns, to have a plan in place to get the problems fixed, and to lift the restrictions once adequate repairs are made.

Developers have argued that the town’s last opportunity to slow construction is in final plat approval for a subdivisions. Mr. Clapp, however, said plat approval doesn’t provide a vested right to a building permit.

Town Manager David Haller told the board that the town faces hefty fines if sewage spills continue to be a problem. Though there were no spills during the drought in 2002, he said there have been three or four in the last year, including one major one.

Town officials believe the sewer line slated for repairs next year is the major source of wildwater infiltration in the town. Emmitsburg’s wastewater treatment plant routinely exceeds its design capacity when a few inches of rain falls, and Mr. Haller said that North Sewer Trunk is "just about totally collapsed."

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