Harford executive race centers on development Candidates' appeal crosses party lines in Democratic county

October 18, 1998|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

In Harford County -- a once-rural area now dotted with housing developments and big-box retailers -- the race for county executive has become a battle over how best to protect the county against what many see as runaway development.

On one side is businessman Arthur H. Helton, 60, a Democrat and former state senator who advocates tight controls on development while the county tries to expand services to meet the needs of a growing population.

Opposing him is Republican Del. James M. Harkins, a 44-year-old deputy sheriff and two-term state delegate who warns that too many restrictions could alienate business and who instead would concentrate on preserving open space and farmland.

In a county where residents have made their frustration clear about the pace of growth, both men are careful to point out the dangers of overdevelopment.

But in a highly charged political climate, many voters have come to view Helton as the standard-bearer for strict growth controls, while Harkins is seen as aligned with the development community and with newer residents who champion "responsible" growth.

"What you have is a polarization between the building community and a fairly active and vocal segment of the community concerned with suburban sprawl," said Brian B. Feeney, former vice president of the First District Democratic Club in Harford County. "Those are the two forces that have been at battle this election."

Both men are seeking to succeed Eileen M. Rehrmann, a Democrat who served two terms and abandoned the race for governor weeks before the primary.

Changing demographics

Since the passing of the county charter in 1972, Democrats such as Rehrmann have dominated the county executive's office, though officeholders generally have been conservative, reflecting the area's small-town values.

But in a county that was once 2-to-1 Democratic, the numbers are changing -- 55,492 registered Democrats and 44,836 registered Republicans as of September. Some believe the shift could lead to the first-ever Republican executive in the county of more than 200,000.

That shift can only serve to help Harkins, said Del. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican from Joppatowne.

"I think Art Helton has his work cut out for him," said Jacobs, who is running against Del. Mary Louise Preis for state Senate. "I think we are seeing the end of what people see as the good-old-boy network, and I think Jim represents the new, up-and-coming Harford of the future."

In the final weeks before the election, both men have been campaigning hard.

"We've gone from a sleepy county years ago to a suburban county that has its sleepiness in some areas and suburban components in others," Harkins said. "Growth is definitely one of the biggest issues here now."

One recent day, Harkins strode hurriedly into his campaign headquarters on Main Street in downtown Bel Air. Phones rang incessantly, and Harkins steered a visitor into a back corner where his desk and chair sit behind a partition.

"My competition has been very loosey-goosey and short on specifics," said Harkins, who has been in law enforcement for 23 years and a delegate for the past eight years. "We have definite plans to help the county deal with growth and improve."

Helton, however, characterizes Harkins' plans for land preservation as mere public relations and not substantive. He portrays himself as having the leadership experience the county needs -- even though many residents are not familiar with his time in office, which ended in 1983.

"This is definitely a management job, and I have that experience," said Helton, who owns a Western Auto store in Aberdeen. "Since I decided to run, I have been out there in the community, but [Harkins] has spent his money to get his image out there."

Development at issue

Harkins, a county native and the middle child of Forest Hill farmers, was labeled a pro-development candidate during the recent primary because of the contributions he received from the building community.

He denies a cozy relationship with developers.

"I am not a millionaire," said Harkins, a married father of two who makes $43,000 a year as a deputy. "Our campaign from the beginning has been grass roots."

Harkins said he is concentrating on plans to deal with juvenile crime, attract high-tech businesses to the Route 40 corridor and deal with the debt incurred by the current administration.

He said voters should be aware that his opponent, as a member of the County Council more than two decades ago, helped set in motion the land-use policies now being blamed for uncontrolled growth.

Helton scoffs at his opponent's assessment.

"I left the County Council in 1976 and the master land-use plan was passed in 1977," said Helton, sitting in his Darlington home amid rolling hills and his flock of sheep. "It's just another example of Mr. Harkins' revisionist history."

Helton said he is eager to tackle concerns over growth and debt in the county.

He said his plans include attracting more businesses to the county, slowing development and hiring a new planning and zoning director to restore citizens' faith in the department.

"I've seen this county outgrow and outstrip our ability to provide services," Helton said. "When I got out of high school, there were 42,000 people here, and that has certainly changed."

While Helton acknowledges that he has been out of office since 1983, he said he has stayed in the public eye working with several community organizations.

Throughout the campaign, both men have earned a measure of respect throughout the county that has crossed party lines.

Preis, a Democrat from Bel Air, has worked with GOP hopeful Harkins for eight years in the legislature, on many of the same committees, "and I think he's a fair-minded and thoughtful individual who is easy to work with.

"I think we have good candidates in all of the races -- and a lot of decisions to make," she said.

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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