Driving through Edgewood, it's easy to imagine why residents see this slice of southeast Harford County as a city struggling to be born.
Once devastated by the loss of traffic to nearby Interstate 95, the portion of U.S. 40 running through Edgewood has seen a revival in recent years. Shiny strip malls with streetscape face lifts and new chain stores stand just a stone's throw from older businesses.
Dilapidated houses have given way to developments of sparkling new homes. Empty lots have been transformed into business parks.
"Everyone's worked real hard to clean it up, and things are looking brighter," said Tina Hartner, whose family for 16 years has run Giovanni's Restaurant on U.S. 40, packed each lunch hour with dozens of well-dressed patrons. "Things are going real well."
So well, in fact, that Edgewood -- a 15-square-mile area dogged by images of chemical weapons at Aberdeen Proving Ground and adult bookstores on U.S. 40 -- seems poised to achieve the official status of a city.
Over the past year, a movement has taken shape to incorporate the community of almost 40,000 residents. If successful, it will be the first area in Maryland since 1955 to become a municipality without having first been a special taxing district.
"We want control over our own back yard," said Bill Kinne, an Edgewood resident since 1982. "Traditionally, we've been the dumping ground."
As development has exploded throughout Harford County, Edgewood gradually has begun to mirror that growth -- and residents say they would like more control over it.
They argue that Harford County government, consumed by other priorities, has been slow in the past to respond to Edgewood's problems. They include chemical weapons stored at Aberdeen Proving Ground and the fact that Edgewood and surrounding areas account for 40 percent of Harford's crime.
In recent months, frustrations have flared over Dante's, an adult bookstore that opened on U.S. 40 last fall. If Edgewood were a city, residents say, residents could set zoning priorities and ban such businesses, instead of being governed by county zoning policy, which allows them.
To help secure more local control, a committee of 20 community leaders, business owners and government officials has for almost a year been examining the costs and benefits of incorporation.
Starting today, petitions will be circulated to gather thousands of signatures for a referendum on the issue. Supporters hope to have the referendum -- which would be limited to Edgewood voters -- on the ballot by next summer.
The petition drive is aimed at meeting the legal threshold for submitting the matter to the County Council, which decides whether a referendum will be held. The petitions must be signed by at least 25 percent of the voters.
If the petition drive is successful, the council will hold public hearings and set a date for a referendum.
The committee has been trying to allay fears that incorporation would mean big tax increases for Edgewood, which would be responsible for services such as police and public works, now provided by the county.
"In the past, whenever talk turned to incorporation, people would say it costs too much, and the conversation would end there," said John Myrick, chairman of the Edgewood Incorporation Committee. "What most people don't realize is that when you are an unincorporated area, those taxes are already being paid but the money is just going to the county."
Limiting tax increases
Initial estimates, he said, show that incorporation could mean a property tax increase of less than $200 a year for someone in a $100,000 home. The committee recommends limiting property tax increases over any four-year period, Myrick said.
Committee members say any increase in taxes would be balanced by improved services.
"The efforts are not to create another level of bureaucracy," said Robert N. Santoni Sr., Santoni's Supermarkets president and chairman of the Route 40 Business Association and the Edgewood Community Planning Council.
"I am not a proponent of increased taxes; I'm a proponent of getting the most for your taxes."
But county officials are not signing off on the incorporation idea until the group organizing the effort produces a full report on the cost to residents.
"My concern is that there are gaps in the information," said Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann. "I'm a numbers person, and I have asked them to come up with a more detailed report."
Rehrmann said officials already have made a concentrated effort to focus resources on Edgewood.
She noted a new sheriff's substation, a senior center and a streetscape project.
"Prior to this administration, they have felt ignored, and we haven't done that," Rehrmann said. "We are really excited about the community involvement and pride."
'Political hot potato'
While supporters say they applaud Rehrmann's effort, they worry that the next administration might not be as sympathetic to Edgewood.