Dueling over growth in Carroll

Towns, county officials look for common ground

July 18, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Frank Johnson usually presides over the Town Council in Mount Airy, but on a recent Monday evening he found himself in the middle of the Taneytown City Council meeting. He sent a colleague to meet with officials in Sykesville. The next night, he traveled across Carroll County to meet with Hampstead's elected leaders.

The reason for this unusual round of town-to-town coalition-building: Carroll's municipal leaders are demanding a voice in the fractious issue of growth management in the county. Concerned that growth has led to crowded classrooms, congested roads and tight water supplies, they are taking their case to the county commissioners, who have been sparring over development with Gov. Parris N. Glendening and other state officials for the past three years.

"It's time," Johnson said, "for the towns to try to control growth."

Tonight, the town officials may find out whether the county is willing to listen.

"This is a strong basis to start negotiations," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, who said she plans to attend the meeting tonight in Westminster with officials from Carroll's eight municipalities. Said Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier: "We are already doing a lot of the things the towns are suggesting. I look forward to sharing information with the towns."

The meeting comes after months marked by bickering and inaction. Frazier and Donald I. Dell, the third commissioner, blamed the towns for exceeding the county's growth limits. The towns fired back with statistics showing most of the growth was taking place outside their borders.

"The dialogue over the last few months got us nowhere," said Johnson, fresh off an 18-month battle with the county over a new elementary school for fast-growing Mount Airy.

He decided that the time had come for his six-point plan to stem development. So he got in his car and promoted his proposal in the county's town halls. He has received firm support from officials in Sykesville, and he expects to receive backing from Hampstead and Taneytown leaders. He will meet with the other five town councils within a month.

Johnson insists that the county share information on development, plan with the towns in mind and consider rescinding building permits in areas where the schools are crowded, roads are congested and water is in short supply.

For the commissioners, who are all seeking re-election, friction with the towns would only add to the stormy atmosphere surrounding their stance on growth. Frazier and Dell, in particular, have repeatedly locked horns with Glendening.

The governor has publicly decried the commissioners' zoning decisions, which, he said, "strike at the heart of Smart Growth," his initiative to direct development to existing communities. He threatened to withhold agricultural preservation money from Carroll unless the county revoked proposals that would have allowed development of farmland. The state has refused to issue a construction permit for a long-planned water treatment plant in South Carroll, saying it would promote sprawl. Frazier and Dell see the plant as the best way to augment the area's water supply.

"Growth is needed to have a healthy economy," Frazier said. "We can slow and phase it in, but we cannot limit it."

The commissioners enacted a "concurrency" management law four years ago, a policy that promised adequate facilities such as schools, roads and utilities would keep pace with growth. The county is considering capping the number of new homes within subdivisions and deferring the approval of site plans. That could leave developers waiting as long as a decade to break ground on projects, said Dick Hull, a Westminster developer.

In Carroll, portable classrooms surround most schools. Many major intersections are approaching failure. In several areas, volunteer fire and emergency services are taxed beyond their ability to deliver. South Carroll, the most populated area of the county, is enduring yet another summer of water restrictions.

The commissioners set a six-year goal of limiting new homes to 1,000 a year, but before the fifth fiscal year ended last month, they were already several hundred homes over the cap - more than half of them built outside the municipalities.

"The towns are not the big problem here," said Union Bridge Mayor Perry L. Jones Jr., a candidate for commissioner. The towns have valuable lessons to teach, strong records on growth control and no cantankerous history with the state, Johnson said. Sykesville's Small Town Planning Guidelines have helped the town manage growth and provide services. The state has given close to $1 million dollars to help Sykesville develop a business center on former state hospital property.

Taneytown limits its building permits to 50 annually and has not faced the critical water shortages that the county deals with every summer in Eldersburg. The state is helping the town spur economic development with grants to business.

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