Ecker leaves with a lecture Growth critics unfair to developers, he says in news conference

'Our largest industry'

Successor Robey is set to be sworn in on Monday

December 02, 1998|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

In his final news conference as Howard County executive, Charles I. Ecker sharply criticized candidates, residents and the local media for portraying the development community as "greedy and bad."

During a 30-minute speech one floor beneath his office in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City, Ecker also praised county employees for their work and said he has no plans for his future once his successor, former police Chief James N. Robey, is sworn in Monday.

But Ecker, county executive for the past eight years, directed most of his remarks to those who have criticized developers for promoting growth in a county that has witnessed a near-doubling of the population since 1980.

"The developer and builder industry is probably our largest industry," Ecker said, noting that the field includes bankers, electricians, plumbers and laborers. "I am very concerned with the perception that these good businesses are somehow greedy and bad. That's simply not true."

Said the former educator: "You show me a county that is not growing, and I will show you a poor county."

The comments came on the heels of an election year in Howard County in which development interests were vilified as ruining one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the nation.

Slow-growth advocates have said new homes lead to crowded schools and congested roadways.

County financial experts have concluded that a single-family house must be worth more than $300,000 to generate enough property taxes to pay for the services provided by the county.

During the election, local and state candidates who accepted campaign contributions from developers were roundly criticized by opponents who said they were jeopardizing their independence. Three of the newly elected County Council members ran on pledges not to accept any donations from the homebuilding industry.

But Ecker, who in 1994 accepted a total of $291,752 in campaign contributions, most of it from business and development interests, railed against such campaign tactics and against the local media for focusing on them.

"Headlines that read 'Candidate takes money from builders' are terrible," Ecker said. "I say, 'So what?' Where are the headlines about contributions from other special-interest groups?"

Ecker argued that members of the homebuilding industry donate time and resources to nonprofit organizations and youth athletic leagues. He pointed out that Columbia Builders renovated the American Red Cross headquarters in Columbia's Oakland Mills village and that Michael Spear, who was president of the Rouse Co., began the Howard County General Hospital Foundation before his death in 1990 in the crash of a private plane.

Ecker also contended that elected officials who accept donations from developers can still remain independent. For example, he said, his administration kept annual building permits below 2,000 -- about half of the permits issued annually during the tenure of his predecessor, Elizabeth Bobo, between 1986 and 1990.

After the news conference, Ecker acknowledged that his comments might have been more effective had he made them during the election.

"I didn't have a press conference at that time, but maybe I should have," he said. "I just think that someone has to tell the community the contributions these businesses make."

Chip Lundy, president and CEO of Williamsburg Builders and a member of Robey's transition team, said he has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to various charitable and nonprofit efforts.

"What [people] have to understand is that the reason the Columbia Foundation, Grassroots, the Domestic Violence Center and other organizations exist is because a lot of people like myself have made significant contributions to them," said Lundy, who attended the news conference. "What they have to understand is that capitalists are not evil, mean-spirited people."

But County Council member Mary C. Lorsung disagreed with Ecker and said that residents simply are asking for better controls on development.

"I don't know if [developers] were maligned," said Lorsung, who also attended the news conference. "I wouldn't have felt the need to defend the homebuilding industry. They're big boys and girls and can handle themselves."

Pub Date: 12/02/98

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