In suburbs, voters favor slow growth Candidates friendly to developers lose big in elections

Education also key issue

November 08, 1998|By Tom Pelton and Gady A. Epstein | Tom Pelton and Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Brenda J. Buote, Lisa Respers and Howard Libit contributed to this article.

Suburban voters in the Baltimore area sent a pair of blunt messages to local politicians in last week's elections: Cozy up to developers and your career will hit a speed bump. Give generously to schools or we'll be stingy with our support.

But that tide of support for slow-growth and pro-education candidates -- which swept Democrats into power in Anne Arundel and Howard counties -- could trigger a fundamental conflict for officials in suburban Maryland, longtime political observers say.

The dilemma is that it's difficult to curtail growth without strangling tax revenues. And improving schools often requires raising taxes.

"Growth management is a two-edged sword," said Donald F. Norris, professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Growth crowds roads and schools, but it also lifts tax revenues. And if you put a stop on growth, it will also slow down the revenues you need to provide services."

One locality that could be steering away from that conflict is Carroll County. A few years ago, the county slapped a moratorium on homebuilding; Tuesday, voters elected a Board of County Commissioners eager to attract businesses and reluctant to slow home construction.

Commissioner Donald I. Dell, who was re-elected, said, "People moving here don't really understand what property rights are all about. They have the feeling that whatever they see out their window should never be changed. My feeling is, it's none of their business what their neighbor does with his land."

In Howard and Anne Arundel counties, underdog candidates for county executive, Democrats James N. Robey and Janet S. Owens, won landslide victories over better-funded opponents on slow-growth promises and a heavy Democratic turnout.

Providing more money to schools was a burning issue in Anne Arundel and to a lesser extent in Howard, where the winning county executives vowed not to fight with the schools over funding.

Karl Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, expects increased school spending and perhaps teacher pay raises, not only in Howard and Arundel but also in Prince George's, St. Mary's and Frederick counties, where education advocates triumphed.

That would probably require tax increases, Pence predicted, but he said most voters don't mind if they know the money is going to improve the quality of teaching.

"I would characterize last week's elections as a big win for education, maybe the biggest win in all the years I've been a teacher in Maryland, going back all the way to 1974," Pence said.

Raymond McInerney, political director for the state branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, saw another message in local elections: Organized labor still has muscle.

This was especially true in Anne Arundel and Howard, where unionized county employees lined up early behind the victorious county executive candidates and helped provide the margin of victory.

"If the economic times are good as they are right now, workers feel like it's a real slap in the face if the counties are trying to force concessions down their throats," said McInerney.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, said that perhaps the clearest message from voters was that county governments must slow the torrent of subdivisions and malls.

"Growth and sprawl were major issues in many subdivisions, bTC including Carroll, Howard and Anne Arundel counties," he said.

Builders are nervous whenever there is a change in local governments, which can hurt their profits by toughening zoning laws.

But this year developers are especially worried in Anne Arundel, where Republican John G. Gary was known for speeding up building permits and backing huge economic development projects, including a mall near Baltimore-Washington International Airport and an auto racetrack in Pasadena.

Owens criticized those projects. Three county councilmen who endorsed the projects and were Gary allies also have lost their seats. This packs the council with slow-growth candidates and changes its balance from a 4-3 Republican majority to a 5-2 Democratic majority.

Owens said the day after her election that she would keep her promise of slowing growth and preserving more farmland.

John P. Martonick, political affairs chairman of the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said it's clear that developers lost big when Owens swamped Gary.

"We lost a good friend in Mr. Gary. He was an unabashed pro-business candidate," Martonick said. "I just hope that Mrs. Owens will be agreeable to meet with us and willing to have a dialogue with us."

Controlling growth also played a vital role in the Howard County Council elections. Candidates who defined themselves most strongly as favoring restrictions won by large margins.

Two Republicans, Allan H. Kittleman and Christopher J. Merdon, won by landslides in their districts after rejecting contributions from developers and backing proposals that would slow the pace of homebuilding.

Democrat Guy Guzzone also won big after taking a stronger stand on slowing growth in southeast Howard, a district that will see many of the county's new homes in coming years.

Pub Date: 11/08/98

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