Old, new face off in town election

Of 7 in race for mayor, council, many call growth, water supply priorities

Voters go to polls today

Mount Airy

May 06, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Mount Airy's town election has become a battle between old and new, with a crop of four first-time candidates challenging nine-term incumbent Councilman R. Delaine Hobbs Jr. and a write-in prospect vying against three-term incumbent Mayor Gerald R. Johnson.

The mayor's seat and two council posts are up in today's election, and although some first-time candidates praise the current government, others have drawn a distinct line between their visions for the future and the establishment represented by Johnson and Hobbs. The upstarts have expressed particular concerns about residential growth, which they believe is outstripping the town's water and school capacities.

No one disputes that Mount Airy has changed significantly. The population has grown from about 600 in the 1960s to 6,125 today. Where residents once knew all their neighbors, the town serves as a bedroom community for Washington and Baltimore, with strip malls and new subdivisions forming a frenetic perimeter.

That growth has been encouraged by a Town Council that seems eager to annex more land at every turn, critics say.

Johnson and Hobbs dismiss such charges. The town must continue increasing its tax base, they say, and the government has done all it can to keep pace, pressuring Carroll County to build schools and designing plans for a new water tower.

Johnson technically faces no opponent for the third consecutive election. James Holt has launched a serious write-in campaign, however, backed by the reform-minded group Mount Airy Citizens for Tomorrow.

Holt, 53, an engineer, began his write-in candidacy after conversations with community activists convinced him that many residents want a fresh voice leading their government. He has lived in town 10 years and said he is tired of watching the council annex more land when schools are crowded and water restrictions are imposed every summer.

"If we keep annexing like that, the small community we love will be gone," he said.

Holt called the town's six-month moratorium on development a "campaign gimmick." He would look for ways to further limit development, he said, but halting annexation would be his first step. Holt also believes that Mount Airy needs a full-time town manager because a part-time mayor and council can't keep up with all facets of daily government. He compared the current situation to a company commissioning a major engineering project without designating an on-site manager.

Johnson, a retired educator, has been mayor since 1990 and said the town has maintained its pleasant character despite the rapid growth. He and the Town Council have developed plans for a water tower and distribution pipes that will minimize future water problems, he said. They also have restricted development to ease school crowding, voting to decrease the number of houses that can be added per year to any subdivision and imposing a six-month moratorium on development.

But the town can't stop growing forever, Johnson has said. The council has kept pressure on Carroll County to build schools, but the county, not the town, ultimately must solve the crowding problems, the mayor argues.

"The key is to pressure the county to fund the proposed solutions," Johnson said at a joint meeting on the subject with Carroll interim Superintendent Charles I. Ecker. "If we stop developing, we don't solve the problem."

Johnson also has worked to bring a bus line to Mount Airy, connecting the town with Washington public transportation lines although that projects is in limbo because of this year's state budget crunch.

Council challengers

The dynamics of the council race closely mirror those of the mayoral contest.

Hobbs, 67, a semiretired business owner, echoes Johnson's thoughts that the council has done the best it can to manage growth. He specializes in water issues and said he is eager to oversee completion of a new water tower and new distribution system that he believes will eliminate annual water restrictions.

"I know what the problems are, and I've worked all these years to fix them," he said. "I'd like to see my efforts through to completion."

The lifelong resident contends that most people who want him out don't know the facts and would never have been able to move into the town if the council had quashed development.

"You've got people who've lived here a year thinking they know more about how this town works than people who've lived here their whole lives," he said. "I don't even want to get into it, but it's ridiculous."

Challenger Michael Boyer, 62, an engineer, argues that town leaders are "incapable" of dealing with the complex growth issues facing Mount Airy. Boyer said that although council members claim they have plans to eliminate water problems, he has seen no indication that they understand how to create better long-term distribution. For one thing, he said, the town needs bigger pipes in the ground. Boyer also believes the town ignores its guidelines designed to prevent development from overwhelming basic services.

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