S. Carroll's grass roots growing with the area

Activists: The fight to slow development in the county has helped the region's residents earn a reputation for civic and political action.

May 31, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

When she leaves her five-bedroom house in suburban Carroll County, Donna Slack steers her car to the end of the street, turns right and looks down toward the signs: the orange one for the Home Depot, the blue-and-white of Wal-Mart, red for the Safeway.

If she wades into the line of cars and creeps past the stores - and the auto dealership with the lights that shine through her bedroom window - she reaches the area's epicenter.

The hub of many communities might be a quaint park, a busy downtown shopping district or a historic city hall. But the heart of Eldersburg is an intersection of two state highways, Route 26 (Liberty Road) and Route 32.

Not long ago, a stop sign governed the trickle of cars through a rural crossroads. Now, with the population having more than tripled over 40 years to about 30,000, commuters and shoppers sometimes wait five minutes for a green turn arrow.

For Slack, the landscape is a daily reminder of late-night meetings where she, with her hand-scribbled notes on zoning and her homemade videotapes of traffic, fought the lawyers and the developers with their laser pointers and briefcases full of maps.

"I think we slowed a lot of people down," she said. "It got so they knew they could still get what they wanted, but they knew it wouldn't be as easy."

South Carroll, the fastest-growing part of the fastest-growing county in the Baltimore area, is sometimes described as the epitome of sprawl. But a look beyond the chain-store facades, manicured subdivisions and crowded roads shows that the growth that changed it also spawned a political activism that has given South Carroll a distinct character.

It's a story of transformation that can be told through the lives of the old-timers, who watched the land around them change from farms to subdivisions, and the newcomers, who started out meeting in kitchens and losing their fights with developers, but who eventually helped push out a government that couldn't provide the answers they wanted on schools, water and growth.

Recently, a more moderate government approved new policies designed to slow development.

Carroll County Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, who grew up to the north near Hampstead, said of the attitude toward the South Carroll of the 1950s and early 1960s: "You didn't really think of it back then because, more than anything, it was just open space. There was no particular reason to go down there."

Now the region's activists have helped make her perhaps the county's most popular politician.

"It's an area that everybody in the county knows now," she said.

Opposing views

The area's political scene burst to life through the words and actions of a diverse cast of characters.

Among South Carroll's loudest voices is Hoby Wolf, a white-haired conservative who has operated a small private airport in Eldersburg for 50 years. He writes a column for the area's weekly newspaper in which he huffs about newcomers to the area and the leaders they've elected.

At the opposite political pole is Ross Dangel, who moved to Eldersburg four years ago and was so horrified at what he saw as a lack of government services that he became the county's most quotable voice for change. He now sits next to elected leaders from Sykesville and Westminster on a panel designed to guide the county's future.

Then there's Slack, a wife and a mother of four who moved from western Carroll to Eldersburg 10 years ago in search of convenience, only to conclude that developers were taking advantage of a lax government to put strip malls and subdivisions where they did not belong.

"We moved in to get closer to things," Slack recalled. "But we really hated how much things came in and surrounded us."

She said that at the Chili's in a strip mall near Liberty Road and Route 32. Even though she protested the shopping center, she worked for a time at the restaurant. But she still won't patronize the neighboring stores.

Westward into South Carroll on Liberty Road, a cemetery, a few houses and a few churches make for a scenic first mile. Then, a 7-Eleven on the left and a Jiffy Lube on the right form a gateway to commercial Eldersburg, a two-mile strip of banks, service stations and fast-food restaurants that culminates in the Wal-Mart, the Kohl's and the Home Depot near the intersection with Route 32.

Two gas stations with mini-marts, a bank and a vacant liquor store occupy the four corners of the intersection.

In the 1950s, South Carroll had few of these features.

"Drive with me," said Wolf, airport owner, one-time commissioner candidate and, for the past several years, newspaper columnist, as he recalled the Liberty Road he saw when he arrived in Eldersburg shortly after World War II.

Work on Liberty Reservoir was in progress. Most of the streets jutting from Liberty Road were gravel or dirt. Solitary farmhouses sat on sloping fields covered by corn and populated by cows.

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