Frederick acts to slow growth

County curtails development to ease burdened facilities

June 14, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- Mike Jewett still treasures the quaint, small-town charm of Frederick, his home for the past 12 years. But some of that character has disappeared in recent years, as more and more people flock to join him in one of the fastest growing counties in Maryland.

Jewett, 44, a systems manager at Frederick Memorial Hospital, says he avoids driving the gridlocked "Miracle Mile" of U.S. 40, cluttered as it is by shopping malls. His son's high school is so crowded that students must use about a dozen portable classrooms in the parking lot. And even ball fields are in short supply.

"It just seems we're growing faster than we can put up the facilities," the Bethesda native says.

In answer to such complaints, Frederick County officials are throttling back on their prior support for the booming development that has transformed this 251-year-old county once better known for its dairy farms.

At the junction of five major highways, Frederick County has seen its population swell by 68 percent since 1980, to nearly 193,000 residents. With Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas sprawling outward, another 90,000 people are expected by 2020.

But the growth has overwhelmed the county's ability to accommodate it, leading to a political backlash. Upset about cramped classrooms and traffic tie-ups, voters elected two slow-growth advocates in November to the five-member board of county commissioners, shifting the panel's stance from favoring aggressive development.

This year, county officials have approved about 70 new building lots, less than 5 percent of the number of homes constructed annually for the past decade.

The turnabout occurring here is not unique. Several other Maryland suburban counties elected slow-growth legislators and executives last year. Calvert, the fastest-growing county in the state, recently slashed its allowed development in half to avoid increasing traffic jams and farmland losses.

"People are realizing that economic development isn't all that economical," says John W. Frece, Gov. Parris N. Glendening's top aide for Smart Growth, the state's anti-sprawl initiative. "In many cases, it costs you money, and you can't keep up with it."

`Pay for itself'

In Frederick, the county commissioners voted 3-2 recently for a $1,120 increase in the $3,000 fee levied on each new single-family home to help pay for badly needed school construction. They also have delayed or canceled long-planned water and sewer projects to serve new housing projects.

"I want development to pay for itself," says John L. "Lennie" Thompson Jr., one of two new officeholders elected in November.

"We are in a slower growth mode," says Jan H. Gardner, the other new commissioner.

Leading the county's slow-growth tilt is board President David P. Gray, a three-term commissioner who found himself on the losing end of development votes the previous four years.

"There's a real fear we might get overrun," says Gray, 59, who works in a family accounting business and lives in historic Walkersville. "We'll look around and say, `Where's Frederick?' "

`Either grow or you die'

The board's flip-flop bothers some development advocates, like Terre Roy Rhoderick, in his second term as commissioner. "I believe you either grow or you die," says Rhoderick, a surveyor. "As much as people still want to think of us as a rural county, we're an urban county."

Rhoderick, 53, a Frederick native, contends that he and the previous board had taken steps to curb growth while building more schools. The new board, he warns, could kill the county's economy by choking residential development.

Before last fall's election, the county commissioners had approved spending $184 million over the next six years to ease the classroom crunch. The plan would reduce by more than half the 22 schools now crowded.

But with more than 19,000 home sites in the pipeline, growth pressure is unlikely to ease soon. A palatial new high school in Urbana near the Montgomery County border is full, and bulldozers are clearing cornfields across the road for 3,500 more homes.

Next for the commissioners is an effort to unsnarl traffic-clogged highways. The flow of cars and trucks on U.S. 15 through Frederick has nearly doubled in the past decade, to 92,000 vehicles a day.

Recreation has become a waiting game, as the number of kids wanting to play ball overwhelms available parks. Gardner, 42, who was derided by developers during last year's election, laments that her son must go to Westminster for indoor soccer.

Thompson, 44, a lifelong county resident and mayor of Walkersville, says he drives three or four miles out of his way to avoid traffic lights on his commute into Frederick. He vows to rewrite the county's long-range plan, which he says resembles "a treasure map for developers." His campaign slogan: "If developers win, you lose."

`Back into sync'

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