The yin, yang of progress

County: Frederick residents find that for every upside to development, there's nearly always a potential drawback.

August 21, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- After years of rapid growth, much of Frederick County doesn't look like itself anymore and, more important, it doesn't feel the same, either.

This is the part of growth you can't touch:

Longtime residents say they can no longer count on walking into certain restaurants and seeing someone they know.

An Irish pub gets so fed up with the growing number of obnoxious cell-phone users blabbing at lunchtime that it bans the gadgets.

The local newspapers still chronicle Little League results and fishermen's prize catches -- but there are also reports of tensions between police and blacks in Frederick City, about an escort service that may have counted city officials as customers, about two county school principals accused of soliciting prostitutes.

Like the weathered gravestones in its 18th-century cemeteries, Frederick County's once-rural identity is eroding.

And after two decades of population explosion, many longtime residents are not only fretting about finite water supplies and disappearing farmland, they're downright edgy about shifts in their lives that are much harder to pinpoint -- longer waits in the grocery store checkout line, fewer people invested enough in their communities to volunteer for blood drives and bake sales, more time in traffic picking up kids.

Says social worker Cornelia Reynolds, who's lived in the county for 21 years: "It doesn't look like itself anymore. To get from one side to the other, you have to sit in traffic. The seams are bursting."

Not that growth hasn't had its upside. New businesses have brought jobs, broadening the tax base and allowing the county and the city to provide better services and attract restaurants, merchants and the arts.

But many residents are finding that the yin and yang of progress means that for every benefit, there's nearly always a potential drawback.

Take cell phones. In January, the city approved an ordinance that cell phone towers could be erected discreetly inside steeples or faux chimneys.

By then, Jennifer Dougherty, who moved here in 1987 from Washington and opened an Irish pub in the Carroll Creek neighborhood, had already decided she didn't want to replicate the common big-city phenomenon of phones jangling every few moments at patrons' tables.

"We want people to feel comfortable and not put on airs and say, `I'm important and I have a cellular telephone, and watch me take this call,'" Dougherty says of her one-woman stand.

The city's entire downtown, with its charming church spires and 139-year-old town hall, is facing similar questions about whether it will be transformed by its own popularity.

The migration to the county has included waves of relatively well-off emigrants from Montgomery County and Washington fleeing traffic congestion and higher taxes, but looking to maintain an upscale lifestyle by settling in Frederick City's trendy historic area.

While city officials recently boasted about the first homes offered for sale in the million-dollar range, others fear the place is becoming too elite.

"The values in downtown are high, and people like living there, so that's healthy," says Ron Young, the mayor from 1974 to 1990. "It's tough from another standpoint, though, in that it forces some people out that can't afford it anymore."

Frederick County's population swelled by about one-third during the 1990s to nearly 200,000. Some of the newcomers commute to Washington and Baltimore, while others work locally at businesses, such as Bechtel Power, that recently located or expanded in the area.

And as new homes and office parks crop up, many longtime residents are like old grads who return to their high school and don't recognize it.

In a word, that's jarring, says Kimberly Lanegran, assistant political science professor at Frederick's Hood College. "A lot of our memories are tied up with place, and we feel a sense of loss as our landscape changes around us," she says.

Some would like to turn back the clock.

In the second half of the coming school year, the county may become the state's first to ask public school ninth-graders to sign cards pledging to abstain from casual sex. The proposal, by parents on a school board advisory panel, aims to reduce the incidence of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Frederick still lags behind neighboring, more urbanized Montgomery County in per capita rates of some -- though not all -- such diseases and is determined to keep it that way.

In other ways, too, Frederick remains a throwback. The county has relatively few homicides and a historic city with a safe, walkable downtown. Nearly 90 percent of the county's residents are white. The county's home ownership rate is 76 percent, well above the state average.

But change is the constant concern.

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