Ridgely's style makes him foes, friends in race

Longtime local activist seeks commissioner seat

`Some people deserve trouble'

Democrat says his list of solutions sets him apart

October 21, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Departing Commissioner Donald I. Dell calls him a troublemaker. Conservative activist Ed Primoff says he's mean-spirited. But Neil Ridgely, a Democrat running for Carroll commissioner, isn't bothered. He takes pride in his list of enemies.

They go with the territory, he says, when you irk the rich and the powerful on behalf of the average citizen - a role Ridgely sees himself occupying like a sort of public affairs Robin Hood.

"Some people," he said, "deserve trouble."

That's been Ridgely's motto since the late 1980s, when he took a county job enforcing the fine print of zoning laws, often at the expense of major developers.

With his bold assaults on the county's elected officials and powerbrokers, the longtime Finksburg activist has also won plenty of allies, especially in a county reform movement that seems to be surging after the defeats of conservatives Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier in the Republican primary Sept. 10.

Many praise his courage.

"Neil is not afraid of special interests, is not afraid of stating his well-thought-out opinions, and he is the only candidate with a long-range, viable plan to pull Carroll County out of the black hole it has been mired in the last 12 years," said Carolyn Fairbank, a longtime community activist who ran for commissioner in 1998 as an independent.

Ridgely more than any other candidate could lead the county in a new direction, said Ross Dangel, spokesman for Freedom Area Citizens' Council, an Eldersburg community group.

"We're really going to need someone like that in the next few years," Dangel said. "I like a lot of the candidates' ideas, but there has to be a leader to push things forward, and I see those qualities in Neil."

Ridgely, 53, grew up in the Rodgers Forge area of Baltimore County, the son of a laundry detergent salesman. He left college after a year so he could contribute a full-time income to the family. He found his first business success when he started an auto detailing shop in Cockeysville, which he eventually sold because he wanted to turn his passion for horticulture from a hobby into a profession.

About the same time, in 1976, he and his wife, Debbie, moved to Carroll County, hoping to escape the "high-strung" people of Towson and Cockeysville.

Ridgely planned landscapes in Westminster and ran his nursery and landscaping business from his home. But he eventually took a job with Carroll County government in which he tried to enforce new county laws aimed at making development more environmentally and neighborhood friendly. Ridgely said he was horrified when he saw how the county operated, often setting policy in small meetings packed with developers and hardly anyone else. He expressed his distaste repeatedly and as a result had to "go to the principal's office all the time," he remembered.

But Ridgely felt his efforts were having an effect and, in 1994, he ran for commissioner on a platform dominated by environmental issues. He lost in the Democratic primary and, after two conservatives were elected to the three-member panel, he decided he would no longer fit in with the county. He quit.

About a year later, he resurfaced as the town manager of Hampstead and again embarked on a quest to whip local developers into compliance with zoning laws. But Ridgely's bombastic style led to conflicts with Mayor Christopher Nevin.

In 1999, he resigned after an argument with Nevin over the town insurance company's role in a collision involving a town police car and the mayor's personal vehicle. Ridgely tried to take back his resignation a few days later, but the Town Council denied his request.

Critics note the incident with Nevin as an example of Ridgely's hot-headedness, but he says that's not the case.

"When I exhibit anger, it's very intentional," he said. "I thought there was something wrong in that situation, and I showed my anger on principle. I don't regret that."

Nevin wouldn't say whether he thinks Ridgely's demeanor would affect his performance as a commissioner.

After leaving Hampstead, Ridgely took a job with Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, a nonprofit environmental group, where he still works. During the past six years, Carroll residents have come to know him as one of the most vocal opponents of building a water treatment plant at Piney Run Park and of county land-use decisions that he says have allowed growth to overwhelm schools, roads and water supplies.

He has constantly chastised Dell and Frazier for favoring developers over residents, appointing only ideological allies to county committees and holding too many closed meetings - a charge he took to a state review board that censured the commissioners in May. He decided to run for commissioner, he said, because many of the problems he began describing years ago have gotten worse.

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