Perils of prosperity in Howard County

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July 30, 2000|By C. FRASER SMITH

WELL, there aren't many. Perils that is.

If you're Jim Robey, the affable county executive, the problems seem manageable. And, 18 months into his four-year term, a philosophy of governing in good times rolls easily into view during a talk over lunch.

Don't worry about finding new programs, he says. Just get the trash picked up and the potholes filled. Make schools the focal point of neighborhoods. Put your extra money there. Get the roofs on county buildings repaired. Buy some new dump trucks.

Try to catch up and don't plan to spend money you're not sure you'll have forever. And, oh yes, pray that prosperity continues.

"Every Sunday," he says.

Then, of course, you can worry about that form of prosperity known as growth and the attitudes of those who don't want any more. Growth, that is.

A distraught woman confronted him recently about open space. He said he'd set aside a fair amount.

All you want are new ball fields at Blandair, she said, referring to the property recently purchased by the county and state for recreational uses.

He retorted: "I'm putting together a team to look at what we should do there."

"You just want to build ball fields," she said.

"Do you want to see these kids hanging out at shopping malls?" Mr. Robey asked. "How about if you serve on this committee? I'm offering you an opportunity I don't offer everyone."

She didn't want to serve, she said, and left him with an angry earful about the failures of government. Even more emotion has boiled up around Maple Lawn Farms, a 500-acre project proposed for the Iager Farm in Fulton.

"One of the opponents wanted to know what was the sense of having public input if you're not going to listen to us," Mr. Robey said. "Well, it doesn't mean that because we listened you're right. If we don't do it your way, that means we're wrong?

"The developer of Maple Lawn Farms made significant compromises to reach the point where we are now. ... Sooner or later people have to say, `OK, I took my best shot.'"

A fair number of voters, he said, expect him to step in and change or stop various developments, including Maple Lawn Farms.

"I couldn't stop it legally, even if I felt that way," he said. "What I can do is make sure we manage it properly, make sure the roads are adequate, that the schools are adequate.

"That land is going to be developed. ... We have a significant portion of land [like the Maple Lawn Farms area] dedicated to [residential and] commercial uses. We're going to run out of commercially developable land."

Before lunch, Mr. Robey had visited with owners of Orbital Technologies, a company that moved to Howard recently in search of workers and good services. The company makes a device that allows governments to track vehicles: snow plows, police cars, buses, and the like.

"They needed 35 new workers a month ago, and later they'll need another 100," Mr. Robey said. "They're growing that fast. They're better off in Howard County in the ability to get to work. Northern Virginia and Montgomery County are so congested. That's why Maple Lawn Farms makes so much sense."

Workers, in other words, will be drawn to jobs if they can find affordable housing.

"The folks who say no more growth don't know what they're saying about our quality of life," Mr. Robey said.

In New York recently meeting with bond houses, he was asked again about his growth policies: "You're not trying to stop growth are you?" they asked him. Howard borrows money at favorable rates because it appears capable of paying its way.

"We planned for future police growth there in Fulton [near Maple Lawn Farms]," he said. "That area was planned because of the growth we knew would occur."

At the same time, he was sympathetic to those who oppose projects that might alter the character of their communities.

"It's hard for them to look at their area objectively. But I have to look at the big picture, the tightrope we have to walk, balancing all the needs of the county, not just this community's desire for no further development."

Some in the anti-Maple Lawn Farms contingent have objected to so-called moderately priced housing. Mr. Robey says he's gratified the developer, Stewart Greenebaum, decided to keep some of the so-called MPDs in his plan.

Mr. Robey, the former county police chief, says he spoke sternly to the Maple Lawn Farms opponents.

"I said, `You expect us to protect your lives, your property, to come when you're having a medical emergency that may cost your lives.' ... Basically what they're saying is we don't want police and firemen to live in our community because they can't afford a $300,000 house.

"We cannot just be a county of the affluent," he said.

He hopes that point can be made effectively for those who agree to serve on planning and study groups. They don't always change their views, but they find it useful to see things from a different perspective, he said.

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard County.

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