A town's tale of 2 counties

Divide: Municipal idiosyncrasies go with the territory for residents of bi-county Mount Airy.

September 06, 1999|By Jennifer Sullivan | Jennifer Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Main Street -- where small-town America usually finds common ground -- is instead a blacktopped divide in Mount Airy, a border warp that places half the town of 6,000 in Frederick County and the other half in Carroll County.

Among the leafy maples on North Main, Carroll County claims the Mount Airy Locker Co., a slaughterhouse, and the Whistlestop Bookstore. But a short jog away, in the 500 block of South Main and below, lie 50 spacious homes in soft pastels and bright whites that belong to Frederick County.

One little town, two counties. Is it any wonder that the people who live on the border get confused sometimes?

One resident pays taxes to Carroll for her driveway -- but to Frederick for her house. Children who play together on town soccer teams separate at each county's school bus stops every morning. Next-door neighbors elect different state delegates and senators, and 911 calls are routed to different police departments.

Dortha Cunningham has the distinction of living in two places at once.

Cunningham's 25-foot driveway is in Carroll County. Her three-bedroom house with pastel yellow vinyl siding sits on a 0.16 acre lot in Frederick.

Cunningham, 74, has had to pay county property taxes for each over the years as the state reassessed -- separately -- the value of her driveway and of her house.

"I pay $2.87 a year, just for the driveway," Cunningham said.

Larry White, supervisor for Carroll County's state assessment office, said he thought Cunningham's situation was unique. Although Cunningham would prefer that all her property fall under the jurisdiction of only one county, no change is planned. "Property deeds are long-standing legal documents recorded in each county, [and] boundaries are followed very closely. As long as a person has land in both counties, we have to" assess the land, said White.

The dual county status is confusing for state troopers, too.

Troopers must know the exact county boundaries when they make an arrest or give a citation. The block of Main Street in which someone is arrested determines whether he or she will appear in a Carroll, or Frederick, county court. Fred and Irene Brown have lived in the spacious white house with blue-and-raspberry trim at Sunset Avenue and South Main Street for more than 10 years. Their house is an enclave -- a small piece of Carroll County located amid Frederick County neighbors. The county division grows apparent on trash day. In the past, when incorporated Mount Airy was responsible for trash collection, each neighborhood set out its trash on a given day. Now, however, each county handles its own trash collection -- which means different days for Brown and his Frederick neighbors.

"They'll come and pick up everybody on the street but me," said Brown, a warehouse supervisor in Prince George's County. "I could lay my stuff three feet away from my neighbor's and they wouldn't pick it up."

Divided since its beginning

Mount Airy has been divided between the two counties for its 100-year history.

"All the businesses in those days were on the Carroll County side," said Travis Norwood, 71, whose family has lived in Mount Airy since it was incorporated in the early 1890s.

Norwood, a former postmaster of the town, said the boundary confusion wasn't as much of a problem when the area was rural and in the midst of a railroad boom, because nearly all town residents lived in Carroll County.

The Frederick County side of town did not develop beyond family-run farmland until nearly the early 1900s, said Norwood. But these days, 53 percent of the town's residents live in Frederick.

In 1980 there were 540 people on the Frederick side of town, Frederick County officials said. Now there are almost 3,000.

The Carroll population hasn't grown as dramatically. In 1980, 2,000 people lived on the Carroll side of Mount Airy. Now there are about 2,800, Carroll officials said.

Jim Shaw, Frederick County director of planning, said he believes the Carroll side will gain the population edge over the next five years as 771 homes are built. The Frederick side is not expected to grow unless the town annexes more land after finishing its master plan -- a process expected to be completed next year.

Although the split is confusing, there has not been a strong movement to blend the town into one county.

In this way, Mount Airy differs from Takoma Park, a community once divided between Montgomery and Prince George's counties that affiliated itself solely with Montgomery in 1997. Mount Airy town officials doubt that they will do anything comparable soon.

Town Councilman David Pyatt said that because the two counties share a similar tax structure, residents have not shown interest in being annexed into one county or the other.

If anything, the town's desire to become more autonomous seems to be growing.

A bi-county high school?

As an incorporated town with its own elected officials, the municipality controls water use, handles road repairs and issues building permits. Many residents are supporting a town-managed bi-county high school exclusively for Mount Airy teens.

Both counties have discouraged the notion, but residents' hopes remain high.

"The fact is that kids feel like they are competing against each other," Irene Brown said, adding that sporting events are exceptionally competitive when Mount Airy teens from different counties are pitted against each other. "It loses that feeling of a community, even though both kids live in Mount Airy."

Pub Date: 9/06/99

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