Suburbs' Big Issue: Growth

November 05, 1994

With everyone from dog catcher to U.S. senator vowing to fight crime, there's no denying the issue's resonance among voters this season. But the real angst in many suburban areas isn't about the growth of crime; in many residents' eyes, it's over the crime of too much growth.

In Howard County, Republican Executive Chuck Ecker faces a vociferous challenge from Democrat Susan Gray, whose single issue is attacking higher density and increased residential growth. In Harford County -- a once-rural outpost transformed dramatically in the past decade -- the County Council presidency is being sought by councilwoman Theresa Pierno, who has made a name for herself as a grassroots growth-combatant. In Carroll County, the primary's top vote-getter, Republican Richard T. Yates, says the "destruction of quality of life" due to unbridled growth is his key cause.

There's a parallel between the issue of crime, for which the rate is down but fears are up, and growth. Even as suburbanites voice anger about development, the rate of growth has tailed off.

The Baltimore region actually had a negative migration stream in 1992, according to the state Office of Planning; it was the first year that fewer people moved into the region than moved out of it since 1983. Admittedly, most of that loss was in Baltimore city and county, but even the outer suburbs are gaining residents at only half the rate of a few years ago. Howard County, for instance, is expected to grow at 2.75 percent through this decade, compared to 4.68 percent in the '80s.

Political leaders still need to address the effects of growth. Burgeoning communities must have adequate schools, roads, water and sewer. But candidates who campaign to totally stop growth are playing to voters' fears. It's not economical or even socially beneficial; new businesses -- and their jobs -- are drawn to growing communities. Large-lot subdivisions just aren't economically feasible for every family, nor good for the environment.

As to anti-growth candidates who promote themselves as champions of their community's quality of life, it's a hollow claim. A 1991 University of Baltimore survey indicated that people in suburbs where growth is a hot-button issue -- the Howards and Harfords -- were also those most pleased with their quality of life. The citizens most dissatisfied with their quality of life reside in areas where growth just isn't a big issue any more.

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