Growth transforming county

Change: Officials must deal with the challenges that come with an increasing population.

April 25, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Julia Walsh Gouge hears the misconception all the time.

"People would say, `You are so far out in the country,' " said Gouge, the longtime Carroll County commissioner. "A lot of people who have come here, they realize that we're closer than they thought."

In fact, the Carroll County seat in Westminster is just 36 miles northwest of Baltimore, less than an hour's drive. And while Carroll County has retained much of its charm, rapid growth has also transformed a lot of its rural landscape into subdivisions.

Carroll County is no longer just a place for country folks.

People from neighboring cities and suburbs have been moving in, bringing higher expectations for government services and challenges for county officials to meet the increasing demand.

Over the past decade, Carroll's population has jumped about 22 percent - from 123,372 people in 1990 to 150,897 people in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The county continues to expand, making it one of the fastest-growing counties in Maryland. In the 12 months ending July 2002, Carroll's population grew faster than any other county in the Baltimore metropolitan area to about 160,000 people, according to the U.S. Census.

In the 50 years since Route 140 became a state highway through Carroll County, shopping centers, big-box stores and fast-food restaurants have started to line the road. Officials project a 30 percent to 60 percent increase in traffic on the county's main business corridor over the next 20 years.

In South Carroll, the fastest-growing and most-populous region in the county, development has transformed the intersection of Liberty Road (Route 26) and Route 32.

As a kid growing up in South Carroll, county planner Steven C. Horn remembered seeing cornfields on both sides of the road during drives along Route 32.

Today, there are strip malls, gas stations and a Wal-Mart, bringing more business, traffic and congestion to the area.

"In the winter, I remember [seeing] snow fences to prevent snow drifts," Horn said. "It looks a lot different from when I was a kid."

State Sen. Larry E. Haines grew up on a farm near Woodbine, making him the seventh generation in his family to settle in Carroll County.

"Growth was based on people who were reared in the community," Haines said. "Growth was the birth rate and people getting married here."

Then things slowly changed. In 1954, Haines witnessed the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the start of Route 140 construction to accommodate more traffic.

He then watched subdivisions crop up alongside farms.

"What happened was our prime agricultural land was more adoptable to residential growth," said Haines, who spent many years as a farmer before he entered the real estate business and then became a state senator in 1991.

In the 1970s, he watched the influx of people from Baltimore and Howard counties buying homes in Carroll County, lured by the quality of life, schools and the proximity to Frederick, Baltimore and Washington.

That trend continued for two decades. By then, Carroll was the first county in Maryland to establish agricultural zoning, which restricts development and encourages builders to cluster subdivision lots to preserve agricultural pastures, Haines said.

"By 1979, some property owners felt that they were being deprived of development rights and were losing equity," Haines said. But, he said, "the farmers realized they had as much equity because of the appreciation of [the] real estate [market]."

Farmland became more valuable as developers sought land on which to build. When the state began efforts to buy development rights for farmland in the late 1970s, Carroll County jumped on the agricultural land preservation program.

Today, Carroll is a leader in preserving farmland. It is fifth in the nation and second in the state in the number of agricultural acres preserved, according to The Farmland Preservation Report.

Nearly 42,000 acres, or almost half of the county's goal of 100,000 acres, have been preserved at a cost of about $68 million in federal, state and county funds.

Agriculture is still the No. 1 industry in Carroll County, despite pressures to keep developing its farmland.

County officials say they face another burden: keeping pace with growth.

The pains of growing too quickly have had an impact on schools, roads, emergency services and other government services.

Carroll County's school system has built at least one school in each of the past seven years. The county also has one of the lowest police-to-population ratio at 1.3 per 1,000 residents.

Scores of volunteers who make up the Carroll County Volunteer Firemen's Association have been overwhelmed with the growing population. To meet the increasing number of calls and improve round-the-clock service, the county has added paid ambulance drivers in recent years.

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