The Great War – Robin Frazier Versus Piney Run Lake
A few years ago Bob Allen and I wrote a story about Commissioner Robin Frazier’s contributions to the effort to turn Piney Run Lake into a water treatment plant. It’s time for another visit and a new ending. Will it be happy?
“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.’” – Julia Gouge
“We’re two votes; you’re one.” – Robin Frazier
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana
Water and Money
Piney Run is one of the county’s most popular recreational areas, and 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, too much demand, and demand was growing. In other words, 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 Liberty.
County Commissioners Donald Dell and 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, an aggressively pro-development landowner with his own airport and money to burn, 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.
Of course, Dell and Frazier couldn’t put it that way. Among their arguments were 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.
But 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 citizenry of the Freedom Area has spoken”
In some ways it’s more complicated than that, but in others it’s quite simple. People with money on their minds were willing to risk the health of the lake. Others set out to stop them. A fierce battle ensued, with several dramatic confrontations, including a huge “Save the Lake” rally on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in May.
Two thousand people of all ages showed up. Families brought blankets and picnics 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, and he says, as he revved up the huge crowd, “It reminded me of a rock concert.”
And the star was 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 Banner, the quarterly publication of the FACC, declared the rally a “huge success.”
By the time it was over, another 760 people had signed a petition opposing the plant, bringing the number of signatures to 3000 plus. 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, generated good press and tremendous awareness, but it’s unlikely it affected the thinking of Primoff, Frazier, Dell, and the many others who were determined to build the plant. They would alter their tactics, but they would not change their minds.
“Fresh water clams dead in the mud”
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 immediately 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 these 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, a fact Baltimore Sun reporter, Mike Burns roundly ridiculed. Speaking of Dell and Frazier, he wrote: “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 to inform the public.
Meanwhile, Dell said, “We are listening to our consultants and experts. The people of South Carroll are not the experts.”
At least they were listening to the consultants and experts who agreed with them. 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” – in other words, they would tell South Carroll why a treatment plant at Piney Run was a great idea.
“We’re not planning to kill you”
The “dissension and discontent” the Carroll County Times pointed to was in full view during a late July meeting at the Sykesville-Freedom Fire Hall. Emotions ran high. 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 remembers it vividly. “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, most adamantly opposed to the plant. 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 and with an air Gouge describes as one of divine guidance.
“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.”
While Frazier was largely scorned and despised, 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.’”
“We’re two votes, you’re one”
Despite the threat, Gouge would win 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, as her fellow commissioners more or less gave their friends in the development community run of the place.
Gouge says sensitive files would vanish from department heads’ desks, 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 in their honor, his association had a list with thousands of names. (In the 2014 Republican Primary, Ed Primoff was a primary financial backer of the group known as Keep Carroll Conservative, which supported Richard Rothschild, Robin Frazier, and three other losing candidates for county commissioner.)
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.’ ”
A Done Deal Undone — “Whose voices are they listening to?”
As opponents piled on with calls, at community meetings, in letters to editors and newspaper columns, Dell and Frazier dug in their heels. They appeared impervious to criticism and defiantly resistant to it.
The Carroll County Times took note 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.”
Whoever’s voices they were listening to, in the end it was not Julia Gouge, the FACC, the Carroll County Times, the man in the fish suit, or the countless angry citizens of South Carroll who brought the plans of Dell and Frazier crashing down. It was their arrogance, incompetence, and their willingness to pick fights with powerful forces outside the county.
Turning to the lake had not been their original plan. First they 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. Their reason? 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 continued to come on line.
Plan B — “A drought ravaged lake”
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.
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.”
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 simply not done 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 concur with 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?”
There was more. 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’s how Dell’s and Frazier’s well-laid plans came tumbling down, but only after they’d spent $477,550 commissioning a design for the ill-fated plant and another $450,000 to pave a county road to provide access to the treatment plant that never was.
To the surprise of almost no one but the two commissioners, 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, in one fell swoop, effectively undone.
But, 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, despite the opposition and the ruling from the state, like headless chickens that don’t know they’re dead, the commissioners plunged forward with their plans, till finally the blunt force of an election laid them cold.
A new ending? Or a terrible new beginning?
Our original story went on for quite a bit more, but now I’m writing a new ending.
When Robin Frazier was voted out of power the first time, she could hardly have been less popular. Frazier finished sixth in the 2002 Republican primary with 4,453 votes out of 41,975 cast.
She would never have won a county-wide election again. But somehow, in the new five commissioner system, she managed to slip back into power, and sure enough, she managed to be just as divisive and unpopular as the first time around, and sure enough she was once again thoroughly defeated in her bid for reelection.
Unsatisfied with the voters’ rejection in the primary, she ran in the general election as a write-in candidate. Her opponent, Steve Wantz, received more than 10,000 votes, and assuming all the write-in votes went to her, Frazier received 1,141, not even 10 percent of those cast. In comparison, Jim Rowe, running as a write-in against Frazier’s ideological soul-mate, Richard Rothschild, collected 3,232 votes for an impressive 27 percent.
Frazier was defeated for the third time. And the county breathed a sigh of relief.
And then, in total secrecy, five members of the Carroll County Republican Party Central Committee decided that Robin Frazier deserved to go to Annapolis as a state senator. There was a vacancy, you see, and they decided that she was the best person in the county to fill it.
There’s a petition asking Governor Hogan to do something about this. A fellow named George Otto left a note on Robin Frazier’s Facebook page that said this about the petition:
I looked into who was behind Change.org, and the best way to check out any leftwing political activity is to follow the money!!! And when you follow the money in this bogus attempt to derail the Carroll County Republican Central Committee’s recommendation of Robin Bartlett Frazier to fill the vacant State Senate seat, it leads us to New World Order billionaires, and other leftwing anti-constitutionalists. IN OTHER WORDS THIS PETITION IS A FRAUDULENT JOKE—WHOSE SIGNATURES ARE FROM SOCIALISTS ALL OVER THE WORLD—TRYING TO DICTATE THE POLITICTS OF CARROLL COUNTIANS!!! NO WONDER THE CARROLL COUNTY TIMES WAS SO FAST TO PUBLISH THIS FRAUD (January 13th) JUST 3 DAYS AFTER THE RECCOMMENDATION AND TWO DAYS AFTER THE START OF THE PETITION!!!
That’s the kind of following that Frazier attracts. I know the woman who started the petition. SHE’S NOT A BILLIONAIRE. SHE’S A MOM.
As I write this, about 4,000 people have signed the petition. That’s nearly 3,000 more than voted for Frazier. I’ve read hundreds of the comments on the petition. And, although I’m sure George Otto would consider me a leftwing anti-constitutionalist, you can still trust me when I say, with some assurance, that those comments are not coming from socialists all over the world, but rather from normal people right here in Carroll County, who thought they’d made it very clear to Robin Frazier on three occasions that they did not want her working for them anymore.
But either Robin Frazier has never learned to listen, or just doesn’t care. Or is it both?
Jack White is a writer and leftwing anti-constitutionalist. You can get his latest book here.
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