Voting result stirs developers' fears Howard candidates for executive not specific on growth

September 20, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

The day after Dennis R. Schrader defeated Charles C. Feaga, advocate of developers' property rights, in the GOP primary for Howard County executive, the telephone started ringing in the office of Planning and Zoning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr.

L Developers were calling, Rutter says, and they were nervous.

"I thought it was rather amusing," says Rutter, who is friendly with Feaga and shares his views on property rights. "They were in such a panic about predictability and development."

The telephone also has been ringing in the home of James N. Robey, a former police chief and the Democratic candidate for executive. Robey says Feaga supporters, including some developers, have been calling him since Tuesday's primary.

"I sense there's an opportunity to talk to a lot of people," says Robey, 57. "A couple of those people that have called have been developers who want to talk to me and see where I stand."

More than a few in the development industry want to see where Robey stands on growth and other issues -- especially Feaga supporters who wonder whether Schrader would protect their interests.

The county executive has broad powers over planning development, and the executive's staffers are crucial gatekeepers for developers' site plans and permit applications.

During Charles I. Ecker's eight years as executive, developers generally have been satisfied with the pace of growth, while residents in some fast-growing regions have complained that the county is building too fast, clogging roads and crowding schools.

Schrader, 45, defeated fellow County Councilman Feaga in large part by tapping that "slow-growth" sentiment, a strategy that irked some developers. He boasted that he knew how to say no to developers and attacked Feaga as "the developers' friend" in a television commercial that ran for several weeks before the primary.

Schrader's emphasis on commercial development over homebuilding also has troubled some residential developers and contractors, as has his proposal to require studies of how much projects would cost the county in new schools and expanded roads.

Now, even as GOP leaders try to close ranks behind Schrader, developers who backed Feaga say they are open-minded about the executive's race. They praise Robey generally but are unwilling to enlist with his campaign publicly. They might be hedging their bets -- Schrader has momentum and cash, as well as a moderate platform that puts him in good position for the general election. Or they might consider Schrader less of a threat to their interests than his TV commercial would indicate.

"I want to see if those ads continue," says John Liparini, a Feaga supporter who, like many developers, tends to spread his campaign donations among all major candidates. "I don't see Dennis as being a man whose record has been saying no to developers."

Says Steve James, president of CCS Inc., a Reisterstown contractor that works primarily in Howard County on residential projects, "I'd like to hear his answers, because there are certainly some concerns there." James, whose company donated $2,500 to Feaga's campaign, says he considers growth the No. 1 issue in the race.

"There's not enough development," James said. "It's time to sit down and really see how these guys feel about it."

Several builders said they would like to see Schrader tone down what developer Donald Reuwer calls his "divisive" rhetoric on growth.

"Clearly, Dennis, through his pollsters, must feel there's some sentiment out there that's anti-growth," says Reuwer, a registered Democrat but a longtime Feaga voter. "I do not support the idea of making [growth] a divisive issue and misleading the population."

Still, Reuwer said he has not decided whom to vote for in the executive's race.

"I'm even open-minded about Dennis at this point," he says. "I'll look at how the two people define themselves on the issues as they go."

Robey and Schrader's definitions of themselves on growth leave plenty of room for interpretation. They agree when it comes to vague generalizations: Both would "do better" on managing growth; they would take a "balanced" approach to handling development; they say the county needs more commercial development; and they would consider tightening the county public facilities ordinance, which helps govern development.

When it comes to the specifics of how or whether to slow down growth, though, neither candidate can be pinned down.

Schrader, for instance, rode to victory on a campaign advertisement implying he is no friend of developers. But nearly half the money in his campaign at the end of last month came from the development industry, and he stresses in interviews that he is no way against development.

"We've got to have commercial and industrial growth, and we're still going to have residential growth," Schrader says. "But I just want to make sure we look at growth from an economic perspective."

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