Rising Sun Claims Victory in Water Fight with Cecil County as State Oks Possible Lines to Schools; But Maps Still Protect Rural Areas

July 30, 2019


Many years ago, a crusty, elderly Vermont senator had a solution to end the long Vietnam war: “Declare victory and leave.” But both sides in a war between the town of Rising Sun and the Cecil County government–over town plans for a major expansion of water service to rural areas, to defray some of the costs of its new $10.5 million water system– are declaring victory, after a state agency made two relatively minor concessions to the town while accepting the county’s insistence to protect rural and farm areas from development.

One side in the local feud seems unwilling to “leave” the battlefield anytime soon. While the county adopted a low-key matter-of-fact tone with presentation of relevant documents, the Town of Rising Sun and its mayor, Travis Marion, went on the political offensive. In particular, portions of the town’s official statement claiming victory in the MDE’s decisions and posted on social media could make a libel lawyer salivate at the potential for a high-fee case.

The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) recently approved Cecil County’s updated Master Water and Sewer Plan with two changes sought by the Town of Rising Sun: inclusion of possible future town water lines to two schools said to have problems with existing well water. But the new maps retain the integrity of rural conservation areas, as proposed by the county government and mandated by a 2010 comprehensive land use plan that was drafted by a more than 40-member citizen’s panel before it was approved by the County Commissioners board.

In its review of the new water and sewer plan, which must be periodically updated and approved by the state, MDE inserted two items sought by the town: extending water lines to West Nottingham Academy and the Rising Sun elementary school due to complaints of poor water quality in existing on-site wells. The revisions state that “MDE allows and encourages connection to the Town of Rising Sun’s public water system” for the schools, located a significant distance south of the town center and far outside existing water service areas.

But Perry Willis, executive director of support services for the Cecil County Public Schools, told CECIL TIMES that the Rising Sun elementary school’s water quality issues are not a serious problem. He said that water from the school’s on-site wells are tested on a daily basis and in the past few years there have been no problems with nitrate levels, which were cited by the town in its arguments. Willis said that in the past there were “a few days” when nitrate levels were higher than normal, due to nearby farmers fertilizing their fields. When levels rose, the school provided students and staff with bottled water for a few days until nitrate levels declined.

Willis said the county schools had no plans to seek, or pay for, an extended water line to the school. But, he added, if the town decided to extend a waterline at its own expense to “right in front of the school,” the school would pay for a short line on school property to tap into the main water line.

Some estimates of the cost of running a town waterline to Rising Sun elementary have been tallied at nearly $2 million.

For an extension of town water services outside the boundaries set by the master water and sewer plan due to health concerns, the recent Earleville/Pearce Creek water project serves as a template for policy and procedure—including certification of pollution, financing of a solution, and health and county approval of a public waterline due to health concerns.

In that case, residents living near the US Army Corps of Engineers shipping channel dredge spoil dumpsite at the end of Pond Neck Road complained for nearly 20 years of pollution of their wells by the dump. It was only when the Corps wanted to resume dumping at the site, after a 20-year hiatus due to pollution concerns, that independent federal studies confirmed the dumpsite’s responsibility for the pollution. As a result, a solution to pipe water from the town of Cecilton, about 8 miles away, was approved by the county and MDE, and the Maryland Port Administration (MPA) agreed to pay the more than $14 million costs.

Eric Sennstrom, director of the Cecil County Department of Land Use and Development Services, told CECIL TIMES that the Earleville project would be a model for how extending waterlines in Rising Sun to the schools would be handled. The county health department would have to certify a health threat at the Rising Sun schools, just as was done for the Earleville project.

In addition, the Earleville project included a restriction that the waterline must be a “closed” line, with no intermediary connections allowed in the nearby rural residential and agricultural zones. Sennstrom said the same restrictions and requirement for a “closed” waterline would apply if services were extended to the Rising Sun area schools.

In the MDE’s evaluation of the Rising Sun proposals, the state agency noted that the town will need to upgrade its water storage tanks as well as ancillary water lines, at major costs. In particular, the report noted that the town needs to replace many lines, due to “problems with breakage and leaks” as well as “undersized lines.” The MDE analysis estimated needed improvements would “cost roughly $1.9 million dollars to complete and will commence as soon as a funding source can be identified.”

Rising Sun is looking for ways to offset the mega-costs of its deal with the Chester Water Authority (CWA) in Pennsylvania, costing $10.5 million to build a main service line to the town, which previously used local wells for water. The town has also contracted with CWA to provide up to a million gallons of water per day. Yet the town currently has just 1,100 customers, according to MDE documents.

By limiting expansion of town water services to the schools due to possible health concerns, MDE is not giving the town a green-light to use those lines as an entrée to broad expansion of services throughout the area.

The only way the town could expand water services broadly would be to annex lands into town limits, Sennstrom said. But that would mean landowners would be subject to town property taxes, as well as utility hookup fees and ongoing costs which many rural area property owners and farmers would be unwilling to endure. The town has stated it would not force annexation on landowners but would only annex willing properties.

The town did not make its formal demands for broadly expanded water services under the county water and sewer plan until after the deadline for presentation and review by the county’s planning commission last year. The plan was already approved by that panel and pending before the County Council when Mayor Travis Marion and town administrator Calvin Bonenberger demanded delays so their revisions could be included. The County Council ultimately rejected the last-minute revision proposals, although several councilors voiced sympathy for the town’s concerns.

The town launched a determined campaign with state officials, with the result that MDE gave some small amount of ground with the school water line additions.

But to read Marion’s individual social media posts, and especially the unsubstantiated conspiratorial allegations posted on the town’s official Facebook page, one would think that Darth Vader had taken over county government.

The town enlisted political allies in its fight, including former County Council member Dan Schneckenburger, who posted some conspiratorial rants on the issue on social media. Schneckenburger lost his last two elections for county office but had been expected to run again to challenge incumbent County Executive Alan McCarthy in the 2020 election. (However, Schneckenburger recently moved to Florida and took a job with a local government job development agency, thus taking him out of the running in the 2020 campaign here.)

[SEE previous CECIL TIMES report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2019/03/cecil-chatter-space-aliens-and-rocket-science-conspiracy-theory-fuels-local-politics-smart-jobs-come-to-cecil-county/ ]

In declaring “victory” in the latest skirmish, Mayor Marion declared on social media that the town officials “do not feel that our residents should face the burden of high utility rates with no end in sight. We will continue to work hard at easing that burden.”

He also criticized an unnamed County Council member—apparently Councilor Al Miller, a farm advocate from Rising Sun who voted against delaying action on the county water plan to give the town more time to argue its case.

Miller told CECIL TIMES on Tuesday that he strongly advocated for economic development within existing town limits, where there are hundreds of acres of vacant land that could be developed and hooked up to town water lines. He said that most area farmers told him they had no desire to hook into town utility services.

In the Town’s official statement on the MDE case, it was alleged that talks were held with the county in “early 2016” about possible “regional” co-ordination on water and sewer services but that the town eventually concluded that the county wanted to take over town resources “to distribute as they saw fit.” And the town statement alleged that its leaders thought it was “clear that these resources would be turned over to a for-profit entity” that would benefit while town residents would be stuck with the debt for the infrastructure.

Joseph DiNunzio, a senior executive of Artesian Water Resources which owns private water lines serving many areas in the county, said he had “no idea” what the allegations were about and said that Artesian had not had any discussions with Rising Sun or the county government about taking over the town’s water resources. (We will give him the contact information for a libel lawyer we know…)

In March, 2013, then Cecil County Executive Tari Moore proposed a budget allocation of $30,000 to begin studies of a possible county-wide water and sewer authority, to co-ordinate and possibly consolidate such services that were split among county and town agencies. But nothing ever came of that proposal, although intermittent talks with the towns continued. In particular, the Town of North East expanded utility services well outside traditional town limits, primarily by annexing major development areas into the town itself.

In its new statement, the town of Rising Sun states that it held talks in early 2016 with the county executive and county staff about “our regional plan for providing these services.” Moore was still county executive then. .But, the town contends, Rising Sun balked when it thought it would have been “giving up its Town-funded resources to the Route 40 corridor.”

Current County Executive Alan McCarthy told Cecil Times that in early 2017, a month or so after he was sworn into office, he asked representatives of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), a regional water and sewer authority operating in the suburbs of Washington, DC, to visit the county to explain how their regional authority operates. He said that the WSSC officials said it would take many years and complex negotiations to achieve such an arrangement and he quickly concluded it was not a do-able approach here. Instead, the county has forged ahead on its own, using grants and casino revenues to the county, to extend sewer capacity into the Route 40 growth corridor in a piecemeal approach.

McCarthy told Cecil Times he was “pleased” that MDE continued protections on the rural conservation areas in the northern sector of the county and did not endorse Rising Sun’s plans to run utility lines through rural areas, as far east as the Fair Hill nature preserve area.

“But they’ve (Rising Sun leaders) upset many people in the county, including folks who have long tried to protect our vital rural and farm lands,” he said. McCarthy said he would meet soon with land preservation advocates who have asked to discuss the issues, and would try to “reassure them that my administration is firmly in favor of protecting our rural heritage.”

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One Response to Rising Sun Claims Victory in Water Fight with Cecil County as State Oks Possible Lines to Schools; But Maps Still Protect Rural Areas

  1. Roger Lamb on August 8, 2019 at 1:41 pm

    In my opinion, after attending and watching countless meetings at Rising Sun town hall with their attempts and final approval for buying overpriced water from Chester County and putting a pipeline in on a confusing route to Maryland, as it turns out is a huge benefit for Chester Water Authority gaining new Pa. customers and the accountant for the Town of Rising Sun Patricia Wagner, who had parts of pipeline run thru her farm property. This proves to me how divisive and disrespectful the Town of Rising Sun is to long term Rising Sun residents at the behest of a trio of elected malcontents from the Maple Heights subdivision, some directors of the Greater Rising Sun Chamber of Commerce and others who have also never lived a day in Rising Sun town limits. So now Rising Sun townspeople are screwed over with higher utility bills, and higher rates should be expected in the near future. Some years ago Rising Sun received an award for having the best tasting tap water in the Maryland but that’s not ever going to happen again because of this ill conceived pipeline, as I recently read how townspeople hate the taste of the newly piped in tap water.

    Citizens, voters and elected officials repeatedly told Rising Sun town hall that water from Chester County is a NO GO. But the town approved the pipeline anyway. Now who does Travis Marion think he’s fooling with his online quote “do not feel that our residents should face the burden of high utility rates with no end in sight. We will continue to work hard at easing that burden.”

    Well Travis, you were told what would happen to the rates so you and town administrator Bonenberger screwed up very hard and I hope you pay for it in October. ….

    It’s not just their bad ideas but how they got them approved with intimidation and scare tactics are what is truly troubling. Voters in Rising Sun need to come out October to vote, if only the town would advertise that date so it could be found on their website. Yeah, there is something that stinks coming from Rising Sun town hall and its not the sewer plant.

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