ELKTON — Rising Sun officials have an aggressive plan to provide water service for those who want it surrounding their borders. The problem, in their eyes, is that Cecil County’s impending growth plans won’t allow it.
The county’s 2018 Master Water and Sewer Plan outlines service plans for the next 10 years, in concert with its 2010 Comprehensive Plan. Both plans specifically focus on incentivizing growth along the Interstate 95/U.S. Route 40 corridor and deflecting growth from rural areas.
But Rising Sun, in the midst of staging a comeback after years of stagnated growth, has created its own growth area, reflecting a dozen requests for water service from surrounding areas. The town’s designated growth area runs east along Route 273 to Wilson Road, as far north as the Pennsylvania state line and roughly 7 miles south along Route 276.
Those plans, however, come into direct conflict with the plans the county has on the books. Most of the land east of Stevens Road and west of Route 276 is designated as Rural Conservation District, or RCD, in the county’s 2010 plan. That designation does not permit extension of water and sewer service unless there’s a threat to public health. Furthermore, the Maryland Rural Legacy Program has extended protection for an area just south of Rising Sun in late 2018, although that program is on a voluntary basis.
R.S. makes its case
Rising Sun Mayor Travis Marion and Rising Sun Town Administrator Calvin Bonenberger made an hour-long presentation to the county council Tuesday morning, arguing that there needed to be a carve out for the town in the county’s water and sewer plans to allow Rising Sun to flourish.
“Despite what you have allegedly heard, these plans have been discussed with county representatives,” Marion told the council. “They are not made up stories or lies put forward by myself or Rising Sun staff … We have recently heard some very troubling comments being made about our community by county officials. We’ve been approached by several of our partners that the county has now interjected itself in our affairs.”
Marion and Bonenberger said that Rising Sun officials have held talks with Ramsey Ford, Calvert Manor Healthcare Center, Cecil County Public Schools and Southern States farm supply about extending water service east on Route 273. But they claim that the county administration has blocked those proposals with the RCD designation — an issue that no other town in Cecil County faces in their economic development.
Boneberger maintains that Rising Sun’s interest in extending water service would give the town the first right of refusal, rather than trying to impede on the rights of farmers to preserve their land.
“We want farmers to maintain their rights. We don’t want people to get concerned that we’re trying to turn the area into White Marsh or Bel Air,” Boneberger said on Tuesday. “But how is the Town of Rising Sun supposed to survive going forward? … What we’re asking is, ‘Can we have a meeting of the minds to carve out a compromise that doesn’t create the unintended consequences?’”
Rising Sun’s new start
For 12 years, Rising Sun has reckoned with antiquated sewer systems and water shortages, resulting in a self-imposed building moratorium to stave off developing faster than the town could resolve its problems. In 2018, town officials declared that the town was once again open for business by lifting its building moratorium after commissioning a $14 million sewer treatment plant and inking a $10.5 million deal with Chester Water Authority to bring about 1 million gallons of water per day from Pennsylvania.
Since then, Rising Sun has received a dozen requests from properties in the surrounding areas to extend service. Those requests along Route 273 include Southern States farm supply, which has since long moved out after contaminating the wells of 14 residences on Wilson Road; Ramsey Ford, Calvert Manor Healthcare Center, Calvert Elementary School and Rising Sun High School.
Most notably, Mark Hyman and Steve Ramsey own 19 acres of land across the highway from their Ford dealership and are reportedly looking to develop it. Boneberger saw it as an ideal location for a hotel and restaurant to help serve the county’s sports tourism efforts at Calvert Park. Calvert Manor is reportedly looking to expand, since it has a 100-bed waiting list, and Plumpton Park Zoo is also weighing expansion possibilities, town officials said.
Because of these requests, Rising Sun has been working on an agreement with Southern States to extend service along Route 273 to Wilson Road to get those 14 homes off bottled water once and for all. Depending on USDA funding, Rising Sun officials see a potential groundbreaking on water line to reach those properties by the end of 2019.
As a result, Rising Sun is looking to annex parcels of land east along Route 273. That would provide those properties a lower cost of service than those receiving it outside town limits, if they choose to annex into Rising Sun, Boneberger said.
Rising Sun would give growth priority out to the east, and then to properties in the north, following with those in the south. Request from the north include smaller businesses while those in the south including Rising Sun Elementary School, West Nottingham Academy and Hunter’s Sale Barn.
The town’s growth areas in the north and south could also open possibilities for annexation, according to Rising Sun officials. Bonenberger compared Rising Sun’s intent to what North East and Elkton have done to serve out-of-town customers.
Rising Sun’s growth plan is consistent with the town’s 2005 comprehensive plan and the county’s 2010 comprehensive plan, which marks the surrounding area as future service areas within six or more years, he added.
County’s plans at odds
In sharp contrast with the plans Rising Sun was showing the council, the county’s proposed master water and sewer plan shows slight growth within the next two years to properties surrounding Stevens Road, and south along Pierce Road down to Route 274. The county earmarks large swaths of land around U.S. Route 1 and on the west side of Route 274 for water service within three years; land on the east side of Pierce Road following Route 274 within six years and land west of town limits within a decade.
County Executive Alan McCarthy’s administration issued the county’s water and sewer plan in November 2018. It states that Rising Sun is targeting a daily demand ranging from 250,000 to 750,000 gallons per day, and notes that as the town’s water customer increase over years, it will trigger the need of a second 500,000 gallon water storage tank on the north side of town to meet system pressure plans.
Marion said he’s not sure how county officials did not know the town was securing 1 million gallons per day, since he sent documentation to the administration when Rising Sun filed paperwork with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission in 2016 “to supply bulk water up to 1.8 million gallons per day.”
That letter, Marion added, also requests a meeting with McCarthy to discuss the framework of the partnership that would extend town water and sewer beyond town limits.
Council President Bob Meffley was aware that this disagreement had been brewing for a while, and requested that Rising Sun officials come before the council as a way to bring both parties together.
“In a way, I wanted to get it all out there and hopefully the administration and Rising Sun can come together and work this out,” Meffley told the Whig. “I worry about the ability of Rising Sun to develop. In the past, they said they had up to 1 million gallons per day, and in the presentation it was 1 million gallons per day. I don’t know exactly where they are. But I do know their plans conflict with the Rural Legacy Program and they need to sit down with the administration and come to a solution.”
Compromise in doubt
The county council is set to vote the 2018 master water and sewer plan on March 19. If the council approves the document, the plan will be sent to the Maryland Department of the Environment, which has 60 days to review and approve it. Meffley said that he would be willing to postpone the council’s vote if it appeared that the town and county administration appeared to be close to a compromise.
That compromise does not appear to be forthcoming. County Director of Administration Al Wein issued a statement Thursday on behalf of McCarthy’s office, stating that Rising Sun’s contemplated expansion of service “is not consistent with the goals and objectives” of the county’s comprehensive plan or the master water and sewer plan. The statement reiterates that the area surrounding the town is in the RCD, which only permits water and sewer when there is a demonstrated threat to public health.
Furthermore, any comparison to North East’s out-of-town water service is irrelevant since the town is included in Cecil County’s designated growth area, the statement continues.
“It should also be noted that the Code of Cecil County states that municipalities cannot extend water and sewer service beyond their boundaries without the consent of the County Executive,” the statement reads. “For the reasons stated above, the County Executive cannot consent to permit the Town to serve water and sewer outside of its municipal limits.”
For Meffley, it makes sense for Rising Sun to extend service to Rising Sun High School and Calvert Elementary School and along the Route 273 corridor. He supported protecting rural lands, but he also wanted to see Rising Sun grow.
“I want our municipalities to be strong and we can help them be strong,” he said. “The county doesn’t want municipalities in the water and sewer business. Rising Sun is in the water business, and if they don’t expand, they’ll go belly up. That’s a fact.”
But the council president added that Rising Sun did not do their part make sure the McCarthy administration was informed of its water and sewer plans. Rising Sun did not have their plans sent to the county administration in time to be included in the 2018 master water and sewer plans, which take a significant amount of time to draft.
“I was told by Calvin and Travis that by the time Calvin had his overlays together, they had to wait on their Planning Commission to approve it,” he said. “Rising Sun did not do their due diligence to make sure that their plans were included in the county’s plans.”
In a formal statement, Boneberger told the Whig that the town is not faulting the county for their plans not being reflected in their master plans. Rising Sun staff were in the process of installing the 2-mile Chester Water Authority water line at the time the McCarthy administration approached them for their plans.
“We told the staff that amending the comprehensive plan, zoning code and master water and sewer plans were a lot to take on especially in the middle of completing the line,” Boneberger wrote. “The point that is lost is that whether we submitted the plans last year, yesterday, next month or next year … county administration is opposed to any expansion of public utilities or development beyond town limits. No other Cecil towns are subject to that.”
Stick to the plan
As for Councilman Al Miller, who represents Rising Sun, said he’s heard the town’s complaints but he believed the municipalities and the county needed to stay the course that they set, particularly in protecting the rural lands.
“I think we need to take care of what’s in Rising Sun before we expand. It’s costly to expand when you get down to dollars and cents, and I don’t think 3 miles out of town to reach 17 houses will do it,” Miller told the Whig. “I’ve talked to Chris Moyer [director of Cecil County’s Office of Economic Development] and there’s a lot of potential for growth along Route 1. We have a lot of good businesses there, so there’s some promise.”
Speaking from 20 years of experience on various boards and groups, Miller saw the frustration firsthand when the people in charge don’t follow “a good plan to run the county.”
“It’s disturbing and frustrating. You come up with a good idea and no one follows it. This has been grouped two years in, and a lot of people did work on this and volunteered their time and energy on it to bring this forward,” he said. “I hope people understand I’m still learning. There’s a lot that has to come together and we have to work together.”
The Cecil County Council is set for a public hearing on the 2018 county master water and sewer plan at 7 p.m. March 5, with the vote set on March 19. If approved, the plan will be sent to state officials for review. If the Maryland Department of the Environment is unable to render a decision within 60 days, two additional 45-day periods will be given for review and approval.