ALL IT TOOK the other day was a rumor -- in this case that Baltimore city was about to annex Lansdowne and Baltimore Highlands in Baltimore County -- to draw nearly 1,000 anxious countians to a community meeting.
But it's harder than you might think for the city to gobble up parts of surrounding jurisdictions. That's because of a confusing ballot question 43 years ago that might well have gone the other way. It's a classic story of "what if."
Question 5 was an amendment to the state Constitution Nov. 2, 1948. It was designed to complicate any move that might be made to alter the boundary lines of Baltimore city. Under its provisions, a city annexation of county territory would be possible only if a majority of the voters in the area proposed for annexation favored the changing of the boundaries. A "No" ("Against") vote would maintain the status quo -- the city would retain its power to annex contiguous sections of the county at will. A "Yes" ("For") vote would impose the restriction.
The issue does not seem to have been terribly controversial athe time. There were a dozen or so loans and amendments on that same ballot; the only one that appeared to attract interest was the stadium loan, which was defeated. The issue of annexation in the late 1940s grew out of the contiguous counties' institutional memory. In 1918 the city in fact did annex whole sections of surrounding counties. Now, some 30 years later, foes of annexation were viewing with concern the post-war growth patterns beginning to take shape in the region, and they feared a replay of 1918. They took the issue to referendum.
The Sun argued strongly for a "No" vote -- in effect for the city to retain its power to annex. "There is no conceivable reason why the basic law of the state should be further cluttered by the
addition of this amendment," it editorialized. "No one in authority in Baltimore city is talking at this time in terms of annexation. No one who recalls or has heard of the troubles which beset the town after the annexation of 1918 is going to enthuse over any annexation . . ."
The amendment passed by a vote of 139,974 to 103,687. By a margin of only 36,000, state voters determined that from then on it wouldn't be possible for the city to annex any part of the surrounding counties without the approval of affected citizens. (An amendment in 1955 further defined "approval" to mean 25 percent of the people who reside in the area to be annexed.)
Curiously, there was fear by some county politicians that sentiment for annexation would originate in the counties, that a section or sections of the county would want to be annexed by the city. "That might happen," The Sun suggested, "in Dundalk, for instance. If that be so, the best answer would be better government in Baltimore County, not barriers to annexation by the city."
But what if the 1948 Question 5 had been defeated and the city had retained its constitutional right to annex?
And what if the city, over the past 40 years or so, sensing the need to annex and holding the power to accomplish it, had in fact annexed parts of the county? What if in 1950, for example, it had added Catonsville; in 1953, Rosedale; in 1956, Pikesville; in 1972, Glen Burnie?
For that matter, what if, in 1960, the city had annexed Towson itself?
The very swallowing of a county seat!