Growth is the issue, says county executive hopeful

October 16, 1994|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

Susan Gray.

Mention the county executive candidate's name among county officials, developers and seasoned politicos, and it is almost certain to provoke a comment, a frown or a disapproving noise of some sort.

She is a one-issue candidate, most will say, bent on thwarting progress in Howard County and building a drawbridge that opens only for the mink-and-manure set.

In a way, the Highland resident and horsewoman says, she is a one-issue candidate.

Growth is the county's biggest concern, she says.

Out of it come all of the county's other issues: crime, education, transportation, taxes and waste management.

It is impossible to talk to Ms. Gray about those issues without returning in a few minutes to something out of the 1982 General Plan, last year's comprehensive rezoning or population projections for the year 2010.

In an interview last week, Ms. Gray sat in front of the picture window of her farmhouse, surrounded by planning documents from the last 12 years.

After pausing to feed a roaring wood stove, she picked up a loose-leaf binder containing the 1982 General Plan -- as close as anything to the Bible of her campaign -- and resumed her lecture on growth under her opponent, Republican incumbent Charles I. Ecker.

"I wish you guys would print these numbers," she said, repeating an entreaty she has made often during the last four years.

Numbers were a favorite weapon of Ms. Gray's during public hearings on Waverly Woods II.

That development in Marriottsville and Woodstock could bring 1,000 houses and apartments and 1 million square feet of commercial space to previously rural-zoned land.

Dire predictions about out-of-control population also were the basis for her unsuccessful arguments against expanding Route 100.

And numbers, she says, are the reason for writing a ballot referendum this year on zoning, one that would give county citizens the right to vote on the county's major land-use plans.

With a county population already at 211,000, Ms. Gray says Howard can't accommodate more than 250,000 people by 2010.

Mr. Ecker says the county can handle a population of 285,000 by the same year.

But, Ms. Gray says, county planners in 1989 warned that the county couldn't cope with a population of more than 266,000 by 2010.

"The significance is that [266,000] was always considered exceedingly high to begin with," she said.

The population estimate is used by county planners, Ms. Gray says, as an apocalyptic vision of growth to illustrate the need for a temporary limit on building permits until permanent growth control measures could be enacted.

Planners predicted that at 266,000 residents "the roads were going to fail, you were going to need 16 new school and you were going to have to raise property taxes to pay for them," Ms. Gray said.

But under the 1990 General Plan, a 20-year development blueprint written by former County Executive M. Elizabeth Bobo and enacted by Mr. Ecker's administration, the county is headed for unmanageable growth, Ms. Gray says.

Ms. Gray's message -- although frequently clouded by obscure jargon and documents on arcane topics such as peak-level traffic counts -- seems to have gotten through.

It got through to enough voters last month to wrest the Democratic nomination away from the choice of party regulars, Sue-Ellen Hantman.

Ms. Gray received about 10,000 votes -- roughly the number of people who signed the zoning referendum petition -- to approximately 9,000 votes for Ms. Hantman.

The message also has been heard by her opponent.

Once thought so secure that the county's most powerful Democrats declined a challenge, Mr. Ecker now is playing defense.

Instead of touting his fiscal conservatism -- which led to reductions in the size of county government, turned a budget deficit into a surplus and avoided an increase in the county's piggy-back income tax -- Mr. Ecker has chosen to talk about Ms. Gray's issue, growth.

In a mailer sent out Wednesday to all of the county's 62,000 households with registered voters, a loud turquoise box with white letters announced Mr. Ecker's achievement:

L "Did you know Chuck Ecker has reduced growth by 50 percent?"

On the back, the card boasts about the county's first adequate public facilities ordinance, "which requires roads, schools and other infrastructure to be in place before any parcel can be developed."

The card also touts the county's excise tax on new development to pay for new road improvements and save money for school construction.

Then it shows that there were an average of 4,079 building permits issued each year from 1984 through 1989 before Mr. Ecker came to office compared with an average of 2,043 building permits issued each year of his tenure.

Mr. Ecker acknowledges that Ms. Gray's candidacy had a lot to (( do with the brochure.

"She has struck a nerve with the people on this issue," he said.

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