Growth issue is haunting incumbents Residents angered by crowding seek limits on development

Builders fighting back

Issue affects counties

gubernatorial contest relatively untouched RTC

October 04, 1998|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Liz Atwood, James M. Coram and Tom Pelton contributed to this article.

From the bay shores of Worcester County to the Catoctin foothills of Frederick, a surge in development has sparked a political backlash that threatens to shake up courthouses across much of the state this fall.

Fed up with crowded classrooms, jammed roads and vanishing open space, voters in five counties ousted incumbents in last month's primary elections who had been tagged by critics as too pro-development. Growth remains a hot topic in races for county executive, council or commissioner in at least a dozen counties.

"People are incredibly frustrated with what's happening in their neighborhoods and in their communities," said Dru Schmidt- Perkins, director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a coalition of business, environmental and preservation groups formed two years ago to fight sprawl.

Development was a factor, if not the cause, in primary upsets in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Montgomery, St. Mary's and Worcester counties.

Growth controversies are political fodder in at least seven other counties: Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Kent and Prince George's.

The development backlash seems strongest in some of the "outer" suburbs -- largely rural counties that are rapidly becoming bedroom communities of Baltimore or Washington.

No county executive has been unseated by the growth backlash, but it has affected an open race in Howard. Longtime County Councilman Charles C. Feaga lost his bid for the GOP nomination to another councilman, Dennis R. Schrader, after Schrader made an issue of Feaga's ties to developers.

Whether voters' frustration with growth will affect the race for the State House remains to be seen. Runaway development trails far behind voters' concerns about education, crime and taxes when they are polled about what they want their governor to address in the next four years.

Nevertheless, Gov. Parris N. Glendening is touting his sponsorship of Smart Growth legislation that would use state funding to direct growth to areas where roads, sewer and other public services exist. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, his Republican challenger, has said she would not seek to repeal the law, but has made it plain she has little enthusiasm for it.

Builders object

Builders contend they are being made scapegoats by citizens upset about increased traffic, crowded schools and crime. Maryland's population growth has tapered off in the past decade, and planners project it will slow more.

"Any time they get hung up at an intersection and have to wait through two or three [traffic] lights, they say there are too many people," said John E. Kortecamp, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland, which represents contractors in the Baltimore area.

Even at reduced rates, the population growth is significant, says Ronald M. Kreitner, director of the Maryland Office of Planning, because it comes on top of what has occurred.

Adding to the public's perceptions of increasing development is an increase in construction this year.

The number of new housing units permitted in the first six months of this year increased 24 percent statewide over the same time last year. In the Baltimore region, the growth was about 11 percent, but in the Maryland suburbs of Washington the number of new housing units authorized soared 50 percent.

"I think people are so upset with the loss of open space, with the loss of farmland," said Jeanne Lynch, a Republican Worcester County commissioner elected eight years ago on a controlled-growth platform. "They're just so upset with the march of sameness."

Anti-growth themes vary

Opposition to growth crosses party lines and takes several forms.

In some counties, candidates are vowing to slow development, in others to direct it to specific locations. Some hopefuls are calling for increased commercial development to "balance" residential growth, while others are proposing to increase the fees developers must pay to finance classrooms and roads to serve new housing.

In Harford, citizens upset about that county's growth petitioned for a referendum imposing a yearlong moratorium on development. Despite getting more than 10,000 signatures in support of the ballot question, it was declared illegal by the courts. Activists say they hope to channel the public's support for development curbs into the elections for county executive and council Nov. 3.

"There's a lot of problems," said Chris Cook, a 37-year-old state ,, worker who helped form the Friends of Harford. His litany includes daily traffic backups on Interstate 95 and schools so overcrowded that students must start eating lunch at 10: 30 a.m.

"These are things that affect people on a daily basis, and people are intelligent enough to realize there's a link between those [problems] and the number of homes," said Cook, who remembers growing up in Harford when gridlock was nonexistent. The Harford citizens' group has endorsed a slate of candidates for county executive and council.

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