Ouster of Shore incumbents seen as vote against growth

Activists express shock at result of primaries in Queen Anne's, Talbot

September 14, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

KENT ISLAND - As far as community activists like Winn Krozack are concerned, Tuesday's election in Queen Anne's County amounted to nothing short of a ballot-box coup, a legal revolution that rolled over three sitting county commissioners and a slew of other incumbents.

In neighboring Talbot County, a zealous cadre of volunteers pulled off a similar sweep, knocking off the County Council president who had become a lightning rod in an increasingly bitter battle over growth. Come November, voters appear poised to elect a council that promises to keep a tight rein on developers.

Days after the primary that some on the Eastern Shore are calling a watershed election, slow-growth advocates - as well as the business leaders and local officials who often opposed them - can scarcely believe the results.

"You hope, but nobody, absolutely nobody, thought we'd take out all three of them at once," says Krozack of the Queen Anne's commissioners' race. "It wasn't about Democrat or Republican. It was about the people. I've never seen anything like it."

In both counties, activists say frustration with local planning rules and elected officials fueled anger among voters, sending them to the polls with a purpose. Battles against large-scale developments provided valuable experience when it came time to staff phone banks, stuff envelopes for direct mail campaigns and get supporters to the polls.

"There's great concern in both counties about development," says Philip Carey Foster, an incumbent Talbot council member who was endorsed by Citizens for Sound Growth. "I've been in politics since 1974 and this is an issue that seized the stage in a way I've never seen."

In addition to Foster, three other Democrats and one Republican endorsed by the slow-growth advocacy group won Tuesday's primary, making it likely the new council will more closely scrutinize development.

In Queen Anne's, two-term Commission President George M. O'Donnell - who was in line for a key position with the Maryland Association of Counties next year - says anti-development fervor was the driving force that ousted every incumbent except the county sheriff and one Orphans' Court judge.

"It was a one-issue campaign," O'Donnell says. "Voters didn't want to hear anything else. I raised about $18,000, spent about $8,000. My opponent spent about $400 and didn't have a sign anywhere in the county. I give them credit for being effective in focusing on the growth issue."

These two Eastern Shore counties have experienced several bitter development battles since the 1998 elections.

For example, the Kent Island Defense League formed two years ago to fight an "age-restricted" community of 1,300 homes proposed on a 560-acre waterfront parcel that lies within the Chesapeake Bay's 1,000-foot "Critical Area." Organizers say the group began to gather strength through petition drives, including one last year with 4,400 signatures, though they have failed to block the project.

Four years ago, environmentalists and others on Kent Island began a successful fight against a proposal by the Maryland Port Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers to dump dredge spoil dug from state shipping channels into a site near the Bay Bridge.

Another group, called Up Against the Wall, began meeting in 1999 to block a proposed 150,000-square-foot Wal-Mart at the foot of the Bay Bridge. That project is stalled in state appellate court and appears unlikely to be built.

Richard Moser, a Baltimore native who moved to Kent Island 10 years ago, believes opponents of all three projects voted for him and other Kent Island Defense League candidates. Still, he was as surprised as anyone when he defeated O'Donnell for an at-large Queen Anne's council seat in the Democratic primary, the first race since the three-seat council was expanded to five members.

"I never imagined I could beat a two-term incumbent, a man who grew up here and who knows everybody," Moser says. "But I guess this sends a pretty clear message about what people on this side of the bay want and what we don't want. It's not anti-growth, it's controlled growth."

The campaign also proved to be bruising. Some complained about dirty tricks that included unsigned fliers personally attacking O'Donnell stuffed in Queen Anne's mailboxes.

In Talbot, a mass mailing just days before the election blasted Council President Levin F. "Buddy" Harrison IV for his support of a zoning change designed to clear the way for two "big-box" home improvement centers near Easton. Critics smirked that his orange campaign signs matched the colors of Home Depot's logo.

Harrison - the scion of a Tilghman Island family that for generations has run the Chesapeake House restaurant, a charter fishing business and a seafood packing operation - says he has asked state police to look into who sent the mailing, which appears to violate state election laws.

"A real political machine got me," says Harrison, whose father won a seat on the county Democratic Central Committee. "They pulled everything possible to knock me off. I'm a working man and I thought I did a good job for everyone in the county, not just for the rich, retired and relocated who've come here."

Sylvia J. Gannon, whose family farm would be the site for a proposed new Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse near Easton's airport, has clashed frequently with slow growth advocates. She insists that in a county where the population has increased by about 3,000 in the past decade, development concerns are exaggerated.

"There just hasn't been undue growth in this county and with the zoning we have, rampant growth isn't going to happen," Gannon says. "I think it's unfortunate when this causes a split between those of us who've lived all our lives here and the recently arrived. It's coming from special interests who don't want any change at all."

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