Growth issues sprawl across political scene

Commissioner candidates vary in their approaches

14 viewpoints cover spectrum

Some favor the status quo

others seek varying limits

Carroll County

September 08, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

They've been asked about spending more on schools, attracting industry and getting along better with the governor, but the 14 candidates for Carroll commissioner haven't heard about any issue more than growth.

Ask the candidates what voters are talking about most and the same word arises each time. But ask them why, how or if growth troubles the county, and the discussion gets murkier in a hurry.

Some, the moderate Republicans and Democrats mostly, say residential growth is overwhelming Carroll's school, water and road capacities. The more conservative Republicans say that a few crowded schools and traffic jams aside, the county's population isn't growing too quickly.

Census reports show Carroll's population growing 2 percent to 3 percent a year, slower than the other suburban counties in the Baltimore metropolitan area. But South Carroll has grown more rapidly - and, perhaps more importantly to voters and candidates, it feels different than it did 30 years ago. Traffic clogs main roads such as routes 32 and 26, subdivisions cover what used to be meadows and crop fields, and thousands of children attend classes in trailers.

Most people who say they're concerned about growth acknowledge that it can't be stopped and that many of them wouldn't live in Carroll if it hadn't been allowed. But county services must keep up with the population - and therein lies the problem, they say. Many also worry that unless it can attract more industry, the county will have to allow more residential growth to maintain an adequate tax base.

Responding to these concerns, many candidates have promised to slow growth, peppering interviews and talks at the five candidate forums with their opinions.

"You're putting up with growth right now that shouldn't be here," Republican incumbent Julia Walsh Gouge told a crowd of about 200 Thursday at a commissioner forum in Eldersburg.

Gouge says the county no longer provides residents the quality of life they expect or deserve. The county's adequate-facilities laws aren't being enforced strictly enough, she argues.

Need for data

Gouge, seeking a fourth term, says county planners have never assembled a comprehensive database of the planned developments across the county. Without that data, she asks, how can anyone be sure whether school and water and road capacity will be adequate for a given subdivision? She says the county should deny building permits in an area not when schools reach 120 percent of capacity but when they reach 80 percent or 90 percent.

"I promise I won't vote for any more until we have adequate facilities," Gouge told the crowd.

The other two incumbents, Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier, have sparred with Gouge over growth issues for the past four years. Many critics say the two have pushed a pro-development agenda, evidenced by their support last year for a new zoning law that could have created thousands of new residential lots across the county. Though both backed away from the law, critics - especially in South Carroll - say the episode remains a black mark.

Frazier doesn't see a large growth problem. She says county laws stop any building that would unduly strain facilities and that many of the houses being built now are based on leftover permits from the era when Carroll had no adequate-facilities law. She has adamantly disagreed with Gouge's support for a hard cap on the number of houses that can be built in the county per year. Such a law would discourage the housing market from finding its natural equilibrium, Frazier says.

She says the county hasn't always built schools in the right places and has struggled to get money for roads from the state, but that the commissioners shouldn't be blamed for those problems.

"I wouldn't change our approach to growth," she said in a recent interview.

Middle ground

Dell falls between Frazier and Gouge. Though he has generally voted with Frazier on disputed growth issues, he laments the county's inability to meet its 1997 goal of limiting new development to 1,000 homes per year.

Dell notes that the county has preserved thousands of acres of farmland during his three terms and says that in an ideal world, he would prevent all future subdivisions. "But people have rights," he says.

He grows exasperated at suggestions that a new board could suddenly halt or significantly slow growth. With eight municipal governments in the county, each with a distinct zoning and permitting process, the commissioners wield only so much influence, he argues.

"A lot of what our critics are saying they would do, we've already done," he said. "I don't know what to tell them anymore. I think they just show up to heckle."

Views among the seven Republican challengers run the gamut between Frazier's preference for the status quo and Gouge's calls for reform.

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