Frederick County goes from crawl to sprawl Growth puts stress on schools, roads and some old-timers

September 28, 1998|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- For 50 years, Charles Cole has been running his pawnshop in downtown Frederick, but lately something has been missing -- and it's not customers. Rarely has business been so bustling.

"Back in the '50s, when we were just starting out, I knew about everybody in Frederick," says Cole, 78. "Now I can go to any number of places and not see any people I recognize -- not one -- and not talk to anybody. This was a very small town back then. Now we got what they call those dual highways."

Those dual highways are jammed with people making a beeline for Frederick County.

County officials, intent on luring businesses and residents to the foothills of the Catoctin Mountains, have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. That has put stress on the schools, the roads and some of the old-timers who live here -- and more people are pouring in every day.

By 2000, according to the Maryland Office of Planning, Frederick will be the fastest-growing metropolitan county in the state, surpassing Howard County.

Already, a county that once creaked is booming like never before its 250-year history.

And already, the arrival of yuppies in the city of Frederick has led, in the eyes of many natives, to the spectacle of prissy antique shops and restaurants with tablecloths next to the moldy thrift stores and the shot-and-a-pickled-egg pubs that have always been good enough for themselves, locally known -- only sometimes affectionately -- as "Frednecks."

It has led to longtime residents such as Cole, who spent only the war years of the 1940s outside of Frederick, feeling a bit displaced.

The boom will not slacken anytime soon. Projections call for steady growth in the county for at least the next two decades, with another 100,000 residents or so arriving by 2020.

"It certainly isn't the same Frederick County that I knew growing up," says John "Linnie" Thompson Jr., 44, the mayor of Walkersville, a white-steepled town seven miles northeast of Frederick that has more than doubled in population since 1980.

"You could go through three traffic lights to get all through Frederick County," recalls Thompson, a native of the area. "Now, you go through three lights just to get out of Walkersville."

All of the change comes from numbers like these: The population Frederick County has increased by more than 60 percent since 1980, to about 190,000 people as of July. More than 35,000 people have arrived just in the 1990s.

The city of Frederick, the county seat, has had its population increase 73 percent since 1980.

Maryland, by comparison, has grown by about 20 percent since 1980.

Whether the growth is a good thing is at the center of this fall's county elections. The current Board of County Commissioners ran on a pro-growth platform four years ago, then turned an $800,000 debt into a $10 million surplus, about half of that money from new and expanded businesses.

"We are unabashedly pro-business and make no apologies for it," says Mark L. Hoke, president of the county commissioners. "We haven't made a promise we couldn't keep, and we haven't given away a damn thing."

Frederick County's unintended success in attracting residents made it necessary to attract business, to help pay for the roads, sewers and classrooms needed to meet residential growth. Though agriculture employs more people than any other business segment, county planners are pushing technology -- trying to capitalize on Fort Detrick, a center of biological warfare research, by encouraging spinoff companies from the minds there.

In many ways, though, Frederick's success has come from the failings of urban Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Workers in Baltimore and Washington -- fed up with high crime, poor schools and the cost of living in the state's urban counties -- are running for the hills. In Frederick County, they find peaceful streets and some of the state's best schools. They find acre-large lots with three-bedroom, two-bath houses surrounded by some of Maryland's most gorgeous scenery -- and they pay about 25 percent less than they would in Montgomery County.

"We've had no regrets about moving here," says Dave Delulio, 44, who briefly considered settling in Bethesda and Arlington, Va., before moving from California to Frederick with his wife, Siobhan O'Sullivan, and their two school-age children.

"What did we have to lose?" he asks. "The crime rate? The cost of living?"

'Worth a little road time'

Since its creation in 1748, sprawling Frederick County has been fiercely independent. Frederick settlers were among the first to openly rebel against England, protesting the Stamp Act by hanging in effigy the tax collector. When the Revolutionary War raged, Frederick supplied the cannonballs.

Until recently, Frederick remained stoically its own place, disconnected from its big-brother neighbors, a mountain town that seemed as geographically distant from Baltimore and Washington as it was culturally removed.

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