Does Md. need another county? At juncture of central four, coordinating growth is issue

March 27, 1998|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Jill Hudson contributed to this article.

Welcome to Patuxent County.

If a few civic activists had their way, Maryland would have its 24th county, a jurisdiction composed of the city of Laurel and rapidly growing tracts carved from surrounding areas of Anne Arundel, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Patuxent County would be responsible for what many residents say the four counties neglect -- developing a regional plan to control growth in the centerpiece of the corridor between Baltimore and Washington.

"All the people in northern Prince George's say Upper Marlboro [the county seat] doesn't give a hoot about us," says Tom Dernoga, president of the West Laurel Civic Association in northern Prince George's County. "People in Russett say Annapolis doesn't care. Same thing in Howard and Montgomery.

"It would be interesting to carve off these four pieces that feel ignored and create a 24th county."

Though Dernoga acknowledges that creating Patuxent County is "wishful thinking," mega-projects in the area -- including developments that would create more than 2,500 homes in southern Howard County -- have spurred demands for a big-picture approach to managing growth.

"Everyone's worried about mine instead of stepping back and saying, 'What do we want the area to look like in 20 years?' " says Jeanne Mignon, vice president of the fledgling Russett Community Association in western Anne Arundel County.

"We should get together and determine where we should go."

Any development will affect the thousands who drive the area's major roads, whether commuting to work, traveling along the East Coast or hopping down the road to the supermarket.

Build a 1,300-unit mixed-use community in southern Howard, and commuting through Montgomery and Prince George's will get worse. Construct an upscale mall in northern Prince George's, and shoppers from as far as 20 miles away will clog local roads.

"There's no place in the state quite like this," Karl D. Brendle, director of Laurel's Department of Development Management, says of the four-county area. "The question is, does it all fit together?"

Planners from all four counties say their respective areas are developing according to recently approved growth plans. They contend that the lines of communication are open, especially between Montgomery and Prince George's counties, where three major projects straddle the border.

"There's a good technical relationship between the staffs," says Piera Weiss, a planner with Montgomery County's Department of Park and Planning.

"Everyone has different perspectives and different points of view. It doesn't allow for the same kind of treatment, but certainly the communication is there."

But planning officials also say they are too busy keeping up with what's going on in their own counties to have the kind of in-depth discussions required to hash out a regional blueprint.

"I think it's always an advantage to having closer ties, if for no other reason than for a cross-pollinization of ideas," says Dale Hutchison, chief of the development review division for the Prince George's arm of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

"But I also feel that our time is substantially taken up by day-to-day activities. I barely have time to see my own planners every day."

The debate over the future of this area has been simmering for decades -- since Baltimore and Washington developed into economic and cultural power centers a mere 45 minutes apart.

The four major highways that connect them -- Interstate 95, U.S. 29, U.S. 1 and Route 295 -- run through this area that is halfway between the two cities. Greater Laurel has become a commuter's dream, with an ever-expanding variety of restaurants, retail centers and residential communities.

But some say it has become a planner's nightmare.

Population figures show the increasing demand for homes. In the North Laurel area of southern Howard County, the number of residents grew from 34,188 in 1990 to 42,376 in 1998 -- 23.9 percent.

In the Beltsville-Laurel region of northern Prince George's County, the population went from 41,918 in 1970 to 51,348 in 1990.

The Maryland City area of western Anne Arundel County experienced 39 percent growth from 8,169 in 1970 to 11,393 in 1997. The Fairland area of eastern Montgomery County grew from a sleepy farming community of several thousands to a bustling suburb of more than 23,000 in 1990.

Those numbers are expected to jump -- 11,000 newcomers in Anne Arundel, 43,000 in Prince George's -- over the next 10 years.

Employment opportunities are also projected to grow.

Business development in the Baltimore-Washington corridor in all four counties is expected to generate a total of 219,000 jobs between 1995 and 2010, according to the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments.

Community leaders wonder whether anyone is paying attention to the regionwide impact of this pace of development.

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