Newcomers vs. natives in St. Mary's Clash: An influx by the military has turned this quiet county into a hotbed of bickering. "There's a lot of resentment here," says one new resident.

December 14, 1997|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

LEXINGTON PARK -- Carolyn Lanzi has heard her life reduced to a single word spit out in disgust by neighbors in St. Mary's County like some eight-letter epithet.


"I think that title will last a lifetime," the former Bucks County, Pa., resident wrote in a letter recently published in St. Mary's twice-weekly paper. " We have not been welcomed with open arms."

On the other side, Carolyn Egeli -- a St. Mary's native who has witnessed the scarring of her county's rural beauty by subdivisions and strip malls -- yearns for the farms and tranquil waterfront ripped up to accommodate new arrivals.

"They are not bringing a windfall of prosperity but a misery of overpopulation and confusion to a peninsula that simply can't withstand the trauma," she wrote to the paper, The Enterprise.

With enough hurt feelings to fuel a week on "Oprah," the county that was home to Maryland's first English settlement is getting to be a touchy place these days. The latest arrivals, several thousand people whose jobs were transferred to Patuxent River Naval Air Station this summer, are encountering, well, relationship problems.

"A huge shock has just rippled through the community," says Capt. Paul E. Roberts, Pax River's commanding officer. "The people coming here have adjustmentsto make. The people living here have adjustments to make."

The Navy's decision to move 5,197 jobs to this rural peninsula of 84,000 people wedged between the Patuxent and Potomac rivers was initially viewed as an overwhelming victory for Southern Maryland. But as those new jobs have arrived, the bonanza has simply proved to be overwhelming.

This summer might have provided the straw that broke, if not the camel's back, then its emotional well-being.

That was when 3,157 mainly civilian jobs arrived from the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) in Crystal City, Va., a transfer that took place between April and August.

As with the other new Navy jobs -- which were filled earlier -- the workers didn't come voluntarily but were ordered to St. Mary's as part of the reorganization of the military begun nearly a decade ago by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

The result: a swarm of uprooted suburbanites coming into contact with skeptical old-timers. And it was a mix that was bound to create a few lumps.

"The bottom line is we have some people on both sides who need to grow up," says Linda M. Wright, executive director of the St. Mary's County Chamber of Commerce.

Newspaper fodder

The bickering has unfolded most visibly on the editorial pages of The Enterprise with unusually pointed barbs from all sides. The newcomers have been painted as lazy, overpaid government workers with no appreciation for the rural lifestyle and the old-timers as greedy, backward and unwelcoming.

"I have people say to me, 'If you don't like it, why don't you go home?' " says one new arrival, a mother of two who asked that her name not be printed for fear of provoking even colder shoulders. "There's a lot of resentment here."

Counters Egeli, a lifelong county resident: "We were told [by community leaders] we had to do a lot of improving to be acceptable to them in terms of schools and better roads. We would have liked to have had these things for ourselves."

When local businesses paid for "Welcome NAVAIR" banners across the main highway leading to the base last summer, tensions heightened. Other recent arrivals resented NAVAIR being singled out for a welcome they didn't receive.

"I absolutely despise those Welcome NAVAIR signs," huffed one letter writer.

"Does anyone really think a federal employee cares about being welcomed to St. Mary's County?" questioned another.

People are 'venting'

Rick Boyd, the newspaper's longtime editor, says the letters tapped into a wellspring of feeling that the community had no other outlet to express.

"The lid's off and people are now venting instead of seething," says Boyd.

"In the long run, it's going to help people be able to better deal with the growth that's going on."

At the lunchtime rush at Linda's Cafe, a popular diner and gathering spot one block from the base, it's easy enough to distinguish the tables full of Pax River's civilian workers. They're the ones with the security badges dangling from their necks, and they don't generally share tables with natives.

"The worst part is having to be away from your family," says Gaetan Mangano, 33, who moved to Lexington Park nine months ago from New Jersey for a base job. "I give this place 50 years and a big bridge to connect it to the outside world, and it'll be nice."

Two tables away, Gilbert Neru sits alone. A NAVAIR employee, he left his grown children behind in Virginia and his wife went away to graduate school in Baltimore.

He had no choice but to move to a Lexington Park apartment. He needed two more years on the job to qualify for retirement.

"I'm one of the guys that's caused all this trouble," Neru jokes. "I know some people look at me sideways because I'm NAVAIR."

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