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Return to Piney Run

An image of Piney Run Lake in Carroll County in oils.
A Lone Canoe at Piney Run, by Jack White

There was talk of temporarily draining Piney Run lake recently, which brought back memories of a different time when it became necessary to save the lake.

Piney Run Again

Piney Run is one of the county’s most popular recreational areas. In 2001, it drew 100,000 visitors a year. Most saw it as a source of fun and beauty. Others saw it as a potential source of water.

At the time, we had a serious water problem. Our main water source was, and still is, Liberty Reservoir, which is owned by the city of Baltimore. Most summers, there were water restrictions of some sort; odd-numbered houses could water one day, even houses the next, or worse, depending on the situation.

But it was not necessarily the result of insufficient rainfall. The existing Freedom Water Treatment Plant in South Carroll was more than 30 years old, and rampant, unplanned development had seriously taxed the system. There was too little supply and too much demand. We needed more water.

There were three possible solutions. Build a plant with more capacity than the existing system at Liberty Reservoir (which is what eventually happened), supplement the water from Liberty with wells and other viable, less-expensive water sources, or build a new plant at Piney Run Lake to supplement the reservoir.

County Commissioners Donald Dell and Robin Frazier chose the lake. And with fierce support from the pro-development community, particularly a group called the Carroll County Landowners Association, they stuck with their decision to the bitter end.

Founded and run by Ed Primoff, a pro-development landowner with his own airport and plenty of money, the Carroll County Landowners Association was primarily focused on the rights of farmers to sell their land to developers. They viewed the lake as a route around state restrictions standing in the way of more development. Remove the restrictions, sell more land, make more money.

Dell and Frazier couldn’t put it that way. They argued that the county already owned the lake, that the cost of buying water from Baltimore would continue to rise, that a new plant provided backup in the case of shortages, and that in the end the plant would pay for itself. All with minimal risk to the lake.

Most residents weren’t buying it. Ross Dangel, a former member of the Freedom Area Citizens Council, and a leader in the fight against the Piney Run plant, puts it this way.

“They picked Piney Run because they didn’t want to abide by development restrictions, plain and simple. Developers were salivating for an end run around state environmental guidelines.”

The Rally

It’s probably more complicated than that, but it’s still pretty simple. People who wanted to make money were willing to risk the health of the lake. Others set out to stop them. A battle ensued, with several dramatic confrontations, including a huge “Save the Lake” rally on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in May.

Freedom Area Citizens' Council Save the Lake Memorabilia
The First Time They Saved the Lake

Two thousand people showed up. Families brought blankets, picnic lunches, and homemade signs. The Freedom Area Citizens Council (FACC) gave out Frisbees and beach balls. There were crafts, music, games for the kids, a magician. And FACC Chairman Mike Naused led 250 marchers, including many children, around Piney Run, chanting, “Save the lake.”

Dangel spoke first. He says that as he revved up the huge crowd, “It reminded me of a rock concert.”

The rock star was County Commissioner Julia Gouge. Dangel says, “She was terrific. She was so strong. She permanently endeared herself to the citizens of our district that day as someone who defends the little guy and fights for what’s right.”

While Dell and Frazier were conspicuous that afternoon by their absence, Ed Primoff was conspicuous by his presence, snapping pictures, following Gouge everywhere with his camera.

Gouge says, “When I got up to speak, he got right in front of me and started taking pictures, trying to throw me off, so I just looked above his head.”

The rally was a success. By the time it was over, another 760 people had signed a petition opposing the plant, pushing the number of signatures over 3000.

Banner editor, Mike Naused, wrote: “The citizenry of the Freedom Area…has spoken loud and clear: We do not want a water treatment plant at Piney Run! A community has come together here in South Carroll.”

The rally united more people behind the cause. It generated good press and significant awareness, but it did little to change the thinking of Primoff, Frazier, Dell, and the many others who were determined to build the plant. They might alter their tactics, but they would not change their minds.

The Brochure

Dot Sumey and her husband, Merrill, have a beautiful view of the lake from the deck of their home near Sykesville. A long-time volunteer at Piney Run Park, Dot is a former president of the Piney Run Recreation and Conservation Council. She has a thick manila folder of articles, editorials, letters to the editor, flyers, and pamphlets that document the poisonous politics and bitterness that characterized the battle.

When they first heard talk of the treatment plant, she and Merrill were alarmed. They knew firsthand what happened when the water level went down. They still have pictures of the lake during the severe droughts in the late 1980s and pictures from 1999 that show the effects of lowering the water level to build bulkheads.

Merrill says, “There were times the lake was only about a third full. It would be a mud puddle. There were fresh-water clams just dead in the mud.”

“With a drop of just 5 feet, the boat launching ramps were entirely out of the water,” Dot says. “Many of the smaller coves and the wildlife management area were completely dry.”

She continues, “When plans for the water treatment plant were first announced, the commissioners didn’t even have a meeting for public input. It was definitely coming from Dell and Frazier that it was a done deal and there was nothing we could do. But people started taking a stand. It just kind of snowballed as more and more people found out. People were just not going to let it happen. It’s almost like the whole area spoke out.”

But was anyone listening? The Carroll County Times didn’t think so.

They wrote: “Had Dell and Frazier embarked on their campaign to generate support prior to voting on Piney Run, and had they addressed legitimate citizens’ concerns in an open, public environment, much of the dissension and discontent evidenced today could have been diffused or even avoided outright.”

In lieu of meetings, the commissioners released a brochure that Baltimore Sun reporter Mike Burns ridiculed.

“They have magnanimously taken steps to share…with the public through an information-packed brochure, soon to be available at a few carefully selected locations, that thoughtfully saves Carroll County citizens from the inconvenience of attending a public hearing and, indeed, from the chore of thinking up any embarrassing questions that might be posed to the county commissioners and their staff.

“As for any possible procedural requirements and niceties, we are informed by Commissioners Dell and Frazier that they do not apply. Two heads nodding in agreement are all that count in the tri-cornered county commissioner system of government.”

So, they released a brochure. Meanwhile, Dell said, “We are listening to our consultants and experts. The people of South Carroll are not the experts.”

Around this time a water resource specialist on the county staff was fired, and the environmental services department was eliminated by Frazier and Dell. Eventually, as pressure mounted, they relented to meeting their constituents, but insisted on calling the meetings “informational.” It wasn’t going to be a discussion.

We're Not Going to Kill You

The “dissension and discontent” the Carroll County Times wrote of exploded during a late July meeting at the Sykesville-Freedom Fire Hall. Two sheriff’s deputies in plain clothes merged with the crowd. It was standing room only.

As Gouge walked toward the hall, Primoff and a contingent of allies greeted her with angry shouts and signs. “Down with Julia Gouge.”

She remembers one who “was all wild-eyed. He had a sign that said, ‘Julia Gouge votes with Parris Glendening’ (the current governor).

“I stopped for a minute and looked at them and the wild-eyed one said, ‘We will destroy you!’ I said, ‘Is that a threat?’ He said, ‘No, that’s a promise.’”

Dangel says, “I was walking beside Julia through all these people waving signs and shouting, and a guy just jumped out of the crowd. He was a member of the county Republican Central Committee. His eyes were crazy and red like someone on cocaine. He got two inches from her face, wagging his finger, and accusing her of all kinds of horrible things. It was a chilling moment. She was very shaken.”

Over 400 people packed the hall. One wore a huge fish costume with Pfiesteria sores. (Pfiesteria in fish was a big issue at the time.) Others wore their “Save the Lake” rally shirts. Frazier took the podium to boos.

Gouge says, “Robin went through all this stuff about how she had been praying and had finally come to her decision. People had questions, but she said, `I don’t think you understand: I’m in charge. I was elected to make decisions.’ People were irate.”

Dangel says, “Dell and Frazier basically told us we’re a bunch of idiots.”

Another participant, Brian Green of Eldersburg, wrote to the Carroll County Times: “I was informed by Commissioner Frazier…that after much prayer and thought she had realized several truisms. Two plus two equals four and the water treatment facility at Piney Run must be built. Anyone who dares to disagree with her is either misinformed or incapable of understanding logical truisms.

“This arrogance is insulting to those of us who care about the future of our county. She is the almighty knower of all things who decides what is right and wrong, notwithstanding the desires of her constituents.”

Gouge received a warm reception. But afterward, she says, “The wild-eyed one walked up to me, and said ‘Commissioner, I just want you to know we’re not planning to kill you, but we will destroy you politically. You will never hold office in this county again.’”

Gouge won two more elections, but during the battle of Piney Run, she often found herself in a lonely and precarious place. She received threatening anonymous letters, and life at the county office building gradually became a nightmare.

Gouge says sensitive files would vanish from the desks of department heads, only to reappear several weeks later, and that one commissioner was caught snooping through files in the middle of the night. It finally reached the point that whenever she raised any kind of questions or objections, Frazier would curtly remind her, “We’re two votes; you’re one.”

And the two had powerful financial and political backing. Primoff held benefits and fundraisers for them. His association had a list with thousands of names.

Gouge says, “The night of the 1998 elections (when Dell and Frazier were elected) several of my campaign people heard Ed Primoff say, ‘I’ll run Carroll County from my living room.’”

As opponents piled on, Dell and Frazier dug in.

The Carroll County Times wrote in August: “The only constant…has been Frazier’s and Dell’s teaming up to make decisions without any public input. And since, on many occasions, they have not listened to the voice of the people, people should be wondering just whose voices these commissioners are listening to.”

Plan A, Plan B

Turning to the lake had not been the original plan. First, the commissioners tried to alter the Regional Watershed Protection Agreement that Carroll County had been endorsing since 1979 and last signed in 1996. The watershed is basically just the area that feeds water into the reservoir. To protect the drinking water of 2 million homes, the agreement said Carroll County would not build in the watershed.

The language and terms of the agreement hadn’t changed over the years, but Dell and Frazier decided to change it. They wanted to rezone 390 acres in the watershed to commercial and industrial use. The agreement prevented that. But both Baltimore City and Baltimore County rejected their amendments.

Furthermore, Baltimore City, which owns the reservoir and the water in it, would not permit an expansion of the Liberty Reservoir water treatment plant, unless Carroll County signed the original, un-amended agreement.

And as mentioned earlier, this happened when South Carroll had suffered through several summers of drought, Liberty Reservoir was precariously low, outdoor water use restrictions were in place, and new developments were still opening up.

When plan A failed, they turned to plan B. They would build a $14 million water treatment plant at Piney Run Lake. No environmental restrictions. Less reliance on Baltimore. And with abundant water, potentially unfettered development. It seemed like a great idea.

A view of Piney Run Lake in Carroll County around 1999 with the water very low
Depleted Piney Run Lake, circa 1999

And since the lake was originally created to serve as an additional public water supply, this wasn’t all that farfetched. When Maryland authorized construction of the lake in 1967, the primary purposes were to control flood damage, reduce sediment flowing into the Patapsco River and Baltimore Harbor, provide recreational opportunities, and meet water needs in the area.

In 1973, a $2.7 million contract was awarded for building the lake. In 1975, the lake reached its full level for the first time. In 1988, the county obtained a water appropriation and use permit, and again, in 1996, the county obtained a permit from the Maryland Department of the Environment to draw a daily average of 3 million gallons of water from the lake.

So, in theory, it could be done. But the county had never obtained the additional environmental permits required for regulating and monitoring the downstream water from Piney Run. And a 1989 study commissioned by the county, referred to as the Greenhorne and O’Mara report, warned that withdrawing 3 million gallons of water per day from the lake would likely cause environmental degradation and limit boating, fishing, and similar recreational activities.

A letter to the Carroll County Times referenced the Greenhorn and O’Mara report as describing “a drought-ravaged lake, one-half its current size…no boating because the docks are sitting in mud flats 50 to 100 yards from any water. Generations of fish and submerged aquatic vegetation…destroyed.”

Nature in the Balance

In a September 2001 article for the Sun, entitled “Nature in the Balance,” Mary Gail Hare quoted several biologists and water quality experts about the “serious ecological damage” the lake would suffer due to the rising and falling water levels if used as a drinking water source.

Aside from permitting and environmental concerns, there were practical objections. Why endanger the 2-billion-gallon Piney Run Lake, which averages a depth of 10 feet, when the nearby 45-billion-gallon Liberty Reservoir was available at a fraction of the cost and none of the risk, and there were wells on the Springfield Hospital grounds and other locations that could supplement it until the plant was expanded?

But not only had Dell and Frazier refused to heed the crescendo of objections and criticism; they’d also failed to do their homework. They never bothered to analyze the water quality to determine its suitability as a public supply, and as it turned out, during the nearly three decades since the lake was built, residential construction around it did not adhere to guidelines for a reservoir.

Dangel says, “They let people build right up to it. You got people mowing and fertilizing their lawns and building their septic systems right against the tributary and the lake. The water quality was already on the endangered list since 1989 with green and blue algae and farm nutrient and waste runoff. That’s why we’re not allowed to swim in it. And now they expected us to drink it?”

Another Sun article quoted state officials as saying the required water quality and environmental impact studies could take 10 years. They also pointed out that a permit was required from the Maryland Department of the Environment, and that the permitting process required another round of public hearings.

And that was how it ended, but only after the two commissioners spent $477,550 commissioning a design for the plant and another $450,000 to pave a county road to provide access to the treatment plant that was never built.

The Maryland Department of the Environment notified the Carroll County Board of Commissioners in a letter that they would not issue a permit for the plant. What Dell had publicly called “a done deal” was effectively undone.

But, as the Sun reported: “That news has not deterred two Carroll Commissioners supporting the…project, Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier, who accused the state of practicing partisan politics. Frazier called the letter political rhetoric and said it perpetuates Carroll’s squabbles with Gov. Parris N. Glendening over growth issues in Carroll.”

So, the commissioners plunged forward with their plans until the next election put an end to them.

Frazier finished sixth in the 2002 Republican primary with 4,453 votes out of 41,975 cast. Somehow, she managed to slip back into power several years later, and after four more years, she was once again thoroughly defeated when she ran for reelection.

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