Slow growth rallies Gray supporters

November 03, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Republican Charles J. Corcoran plans to cross party lines Tuesday for the first time in 39 years to vote for a Democrat: Susan B. Gray, the feisty challenger in the Howard County executive race.

The 67-year-old retiree from Fulton is mad. He believes Howard's government under County Executive Charles I. Ecker betrayed him with its major zoning changes in 1993 -- changes that would increase the density of development and alter forever the rural character of western Howard.

And Ms. Gray's candidacy -- and a related referendum that would give voters a say in zoning changes -- have now provided Mr. Corcoran and many others a slow-growth political banner around which to rally.

That is the core of Ms. Gray's appeal: Many of her supporters believe that county government has ignored them and that she's their best hope in fighting for their vision of Howard County's future.

Mr. Corcoran came to that realization while sitting in zoning hearings over the last two years, watching citizens' frustration rise and Ms. Gray's back stiffen.

"Susan was the only one who challenged the establishment, and the establishment does not like to be challenged," he says admiringly.

Challenging the establishment is something Ms. Gray has been doing for the last seven years in Howard County, leading up to her current run at its top post.

She recalls that it was state plans to run the Clarksville bypass of Route 32 through Highland, her community, that set her on this path.

She first learned of those plans when she received a letter from the state. She then called the State Highway Administration for more details.

"I can't believe how naive I was," Ms. Gray recalls. "I had expected to get involved only in terms of keeping an ear to the ground. But they tried to placate us. They started trotting out data in little meetings, and I began questioning their studies."

The more she questioned, the less plausible the state's data seemed to her. A lawyer with a graduate degree in planning, she began looking at other planning and development issues in the county beyond those in nearby Clarksville and Highland.

From her perspective, the government's recent zoning changes -- the ones that also upset Mr. Corcoran and many others in western Howard -- represent a radically changed vision of the county's future. She says the changes amount to "redirecting urban sprawl" into rural countryside and "jacking up the interests of developers."

New zoning in Fulton, Marriottsville and the Route 100 corridor also could cost the county plenty -- $2 billion in schools, roads and services, she says. "It's not only financially unfeasible, it's environmentally unsound," she says.

That warning has been the clarion call of Ms. Gray's campaign.

Among those who have answered is John Adolphsen, a 26-year resident of Fulton. "She alerted a lot of citizens about what was happening," he says. "It soon became clear that what we were getting from [state and local government] was a snow job. I'm an engineer. I deal in facts. I don't know why people can't deal in facts."

For Valerie McGuire, president of the Hunt Country Estates Citizens' Association in eastern Howard, it was not the fear of new growth but

Ms. Gray's help in opposing the path of a planned section of Route 100 that led her to join the challenger's camp.

"She supported us through some very tough times, above and beyond the call of duty," Ms. McGuire says. "She spent her own money, her own time telling us what we had to do" to keep the road from coming through the neighborhood.

In contrast, county government "didn't do a thing for Hunt Country Estates," Ms. McGuire says. "We felt like third-class citizens and were treated that way.

"It makes you sit back and think. . . . It's tough fighting City Hall, but keep at it and one day you're going to win," Ms. McGuire says. "One day, people are going to see the light."

Indeed, Ms. Gray has won few battles, including a lawsuit to overturn the recent zoning changes. But that has not dimmed the enthusiasm of her supporters.

"She is a selfless, tireless worker on behalf of us, the citizens of the county," says Mr. Corcoran. "She is doing this for us, not for her. People say she hasn't been successful -- that she lost [the zoning] suit. She didn't lose. We lost. The people lost.

"If we didn't have her as our champion, we wouldn't have anyone to speak up for us. I hope she will still be our champion" -- even if she loses the election.

He needn't worry. If Ms. Gray loses next week, she would take a vacation and then resume the battle, she says.

"When I thought about running, it was a very difficult decision to make because I had just formed an environmental-law firm with two other lawyers," she says. "I joked with the people at the State Highway Administration that 'you're going to have to deal with me one way or another.' "

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