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Pipefitting: Betrayal or Standard Procedure?

Sewer change amends Master Plan six months after its adoption

It seemed like a little thing — a small pipe that will run a few hundred feet. But that little pipe has caused a lot of hostility.

The pipe, if constructed, would be in violation of the Potomac Master Plan as adopted. Last November, the same County Council that voted to adopt the Master Plan in March decided to amend it by approving the application for sewer service along Boswell Lane.

"We are disappointed, disillusioned, disheartened, and quite frankly, astonished," wrote the leaders of the Potomac Subregion Leadership Group to the Council. "We were convinced that the Master Plan, after Council approval, provided a set of comprehensive recommendations and guidelines for the use of publicly and privately owned land within the Subregion."

The group consists of representatives from the West Montgomery, North Potomac, Darnestown and Willows and Neighbors citizens associations.

“The ink wasn’t even dry,” said Ginny Barnes, environmental chair for the WMCCA, and one of the residents who worked on the Potomac Master Plan Advisory Group.

The Council’s action also contradicts policy set in the Piney Branch Restricted Access Sewer Policy and the County-wide Water and Sewer Plan.

Local citizens associations accuse the Council of voting on the change without proper public notification. The final vote (which passed by a 5-4 margin) was made on the last day of the Council session. One-third of the Council were lame duck council members, since they had lost, or not run, in the election just three weeks earlier.

“It’s more than an environmental issue. It’s not good government. This is a real ‘Is-this-right?’ issue,” Barnes said.

Sewer policy is part of the larger issue of development and housing density. The sewer envelope was a major part of the Potomac Master Plan, approved last March.

"It's a matter of environmental protection and monitoring water quality. That was its purpose," said Callum Murray, Potomac team leader with Park and Planning. "When sewer is extended, the density goes up dramatically. There is a lot more impervious surface, a lot more traffic. The essence is the environment, water quality and protection of stream valleys."

Sewer lines, or the lack of them, can help to control growth. For example, in an area zoned for one house to two acres there might not be enough septic capacity to allow that much building. So by limiting sewer service, housing density is often kept below zoning

“The whole basis is how the Master Plan protects the river and protects the public water supply. Sewer is the underpinning of our environmental policy,” Barnes said.

But Isiah Leggett and others assert that the Master Plan is just a guide, and that exceptions are to be expected.

“[The Master Plan] is a guide. It is not so absolute that you cannot go back and change it in any form or fashion,” said Leggett, then chair of the County Council’s Transportation and Environment (T&E) committee in November. Leggett no longer serves on the Council.

“The Council is the ultimate arbiter of Sewer and Water policy,” said Ken Hartman, spokesman for councilman Howard Denis (R-1). Denis, the councilman who represents Potomac, and the area in question, voted to allow the change.

R.A.M. Investing, Ltd. (RAM) applied for a permit for a sewer category change for a property on Boswell Lane in the Piney Branch area in July. RAM could not be reached for comment.

The Transportation and Environment Committee deferred decision on the request in October; the full Council voted to approve the extension of the sewer lines on Nov. 26, the last meeting day before the newly elected Council took office.

One question residents have is why Howard Denis, who represents the area, voted in favor of something that violates the Master Plan.

“I feel very discouraged. I think we’ve been betrayed,” said Barnes.

Denis, who advocated for passage of the Master Plan, declined to discuss his vote.

“I don’t want to look backward on this. I want to look ahead,” Denis said.

His spokesman was more forthcoming. “We had to vote on it. In hindsight, we wish we’d had [WMCCA’s] point of view,” Hartman said. WMCCA is and was opposed to the sewer line.

“[Denis] was satisfied with the conditions presented to him,” Hartman said.

“When you get the kinds of conditions that are so narrow, I think they should be looked at,” Leggett said. Several specific conditions were imposed on the construction of the sewer line (see sidebar).

Councilman Steve Silverman (D-at large) and Council president Michael Subin (D-at large) are the only other current council members who voted in favor of the sewer line. Neither Subin nor Silverman returned phone calls seeking comment.

Not everyone on council thought the exception was a good idea. When the Master Plan was brought before the County Council, Marilyn Praisner (D-4) voted against it. In spite of that, she voted against the proposal, “because it was inconsistent with the adopted Master Plan,” Praisner said.

Denis would be unlikely to support any additional requests for sewer category changes, Hartman said. “After what we’ve heard, you won’t come in here and get [Denis’s] vote,” Hartman said.

“The Council has opened the door to further changes,” Barnes said. Those wishing to get an exception to it might not need Denis’ vote.

At this point, the sewer pipe in question lies in the hands of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC). According to the resolution passed by the council, WSSC must find the proposed alignment acceptable in order for the project to proceed.

“No analysis has yet taken place. We are waiting for the applicant to request an hydraulic analysis review,” said Chuck Brown, spokesman for WSSC. Brown estimates the process will take about one month from the time the request is received to the time WSSC issues its findings.

As a result of all this, WMCCA has invited County Council president Michael Subin to its Feb. 12 meeting. The WMCCA wants to know what it can do now.

“We want to discuss a variety of issues. We really want to get his reaction about what can be done about the category changes, what this means for the master plan, what can be done about past violations and what can ensure no future violations,” said Susanne Lee, president of WMCCA.

Ken Moore contributed to this story.