WESTMINSTER - Municipal officials enthusiastically accepted the gauntlet thrown down by the County Commissioners on Saturday, setting the stage for nuts-and-bolts work to begin on developing a comprehensive plan to guide Carroll's growth into the 21st century.
Upon invitation from the commissioners, representatives from all eight Carroll municipalities attended the first-ever Town/County Partnership Conference at Western Maryland College, described as a "summit" meeting to promote cooperation between the government entities in shaping Carroll's future.
The conference provided municipal officials an opportunity to express their concerns about growth and discuss with county staff recommendations designed to preserve agriculture; provide infrastructure, such as roads and sewer systems; and produce affordable housing.
"Today (Saturday) we informed," said Steven D. Powell, county Department of Management and Budget director and a principal organizer of the event.
"At the next meeting we start work."
At the meeting's conclusion, some municipal officials volunteered to serve on issue committees. A follow-up conference tentatively planned for early next year is to establish a resolution and action plan, Powell said.
The conference was an outgrowth of the seven "strategic planning" committees appointed by the commissioners about 18 months ago to evaluate problems brought on by the county's rapid growth and to recommend solutions. Other issues studied, but not discussed Saturday, include law enforcement, emergency services, school construction and revenue sources.
The think tanks were launched after the county imposed a moratorium on residential building in August 1988 to alleviate school overcrowding. A handful of recommendations have been enacted.
Much of the conversation Saturday focused on the county's Master Plan -- a blueprint for development that concentrates growth around Carroll's eight municipalities, Eldersburg and Finksburg.
"Thousands upon thousands of people don't understand that we have a Master Plan and that growth is not out of control," Commissioner Julia W.
Mayors said municipalities can't handle growth directed there without adequate technical and financial assistance from the county. Commissioners have acknowledged that the plan's goals can't be met without cooperation from the municipalities. The county makes annual contributions to municipal budgets based upon population.
"We can't look at ourselves as the Taneytown government or Manchester government or county government," Powell said, warning that he expects state and federal financial assistance to continue diminishing. "We have to look at Carroll County as an entity and work together."
Sykesville Mayor Lloyd R. Helt Jr. echoed Powell's comments, reminding county officials that municipal governments are the equals, not subordinates, of county government.
"There's still the semblance of old jealousies" between municipal and county governments, said George Grier, former administrative assistant to the commissioners, who served as moderator of the conference. "These jealousies have to disappear. We have to believe the Master Plan is the best possible plan for the county and communities."
New Windsor Mayor James Carlisle suggested that the county intentionally slow growth but not "close the door."
Helt said that slowing growth would be risky.
"Growth has to occur," he said. "If you don't grow, you die. We can't throw up the walls even if we want to."
County Assistant Planning Director Marlene Conaway emphasized that the municipalities' economic vitality and capacity to absorb growth is a crucial element of the county's farmland preservation program.
To help provide for growth, Westminster Mayor W. Benjamin Brown suggested that the county establish a loan pool, which would allow municipalities to borrow money at below-market interest rates to pay for infrastructure improvements. He also suggested that the county re-evaluate its agriculturally zoned land -- about two-thirds of Carroll -- to identify areas more suited for industrial development, which provides more taxes.
Municipal and county officials generally agreed that Carroll has a shortage of housing for low- and moderate-income buyers but offered few solid solutions to the problem driven by supply and demand.
Mount Airy Mayor Gerald R. Johnson said few housing options exist in the town for younger residents breaking from their parents or for older residents on fixed incomes who can't afford to make repairs or pay higher taxes on their current homes.
But it would be unwise in some cases to approve plans for higher-density, lower-priced housing, such as town house and apartment developments, Westminster Planning Director Thomas Beyard said.
Westminster's schools already are overcrowded and its water and sewer systems in need of expansion, he said.