A changing Carroll Co. yearns for a balance

April 22, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AT BAUGHER'S Restaurant in Westminster, we find Larry Haines sitting in a booth by a window on a bright, sunny day. For three months a year, Haines goes to Annapolis and serves in the state Senate, where everybody can't believe the brand-new levels of contentiousness. For nine months a year, he sells real estate across Carroll County, where everybody can't believe the brand-new levels of housing prices.

So it goes. The cynics used to complain that the county commissioners missed the last bus for the 20th century, so eager did they seem to hold back development. But it's here, and it means new costs at a time when everybody wants to hold down taxes, and it also means this county is still trying to strike a balance between its historic green and rural countryside and all those newcomers showing up with their need for schools, their hunger for shopping areas, and their need for police and fire protection, for trash collection, and for water and paved roads.

Not to mention, their need to put houses on all that formerly green and undeveloped land.

This week, county planners completed a land inventory that conservatively estimates that 33,000 lots are available for home construction. Meaning, if they were built, it could add about 100,000 residents (including about 30,000 schoolchildren) to the county's 170,000 population.

So here was Haines, finishing off lunch at Baugher's and shaking his head in wonder at all the changes that have come in his lifetime and lately speeded up. He grew up on a dairy farm over in Winfield. There were 27 kids in his high school graduating class.

In a time when Baltimore still had nearly a million residents, Carroll County was considered a distant rumor. Housing, for those who were interested, was cheap. Now, says Haines, his firm, Haines Realty, has nothing available for less than $200,000. Haines rattles off the price of a few homes on the market: $640,000 and $830,000 and $746,000. A few miles up cluttered Westminster Pike, a billboard advertises Kimberly Homes - "from $500,000." This is considered some kind of bargain. In fact, for those moving here from Montgomery and Howard counties, it is.

But all this new development implies choices. What might extensive new housing do to the countryside? And, who will foot the bill for all the new services needed by these newcomers?

"The truth is, we don't know when this is going to happen - but you can bet it's gonna happen before government's ready for it," says County Commissioner Dean Minnich. "I've been staring at this map with little dots showing where the housing lots are. They're everywhere. The map looks like a first-grader with measles.

"The problem is, it's nice to be a conservative politician and say, `I ain't gonna raise taxes.' But you have to be responsible, you have to pay attention to the public's needs as more of these people show up than we expected. Historically, Carroll County has taken a laissez-faire approach: If you build it, they will come - and we'll take care of the problems later. But then you have to raise taxes to pay for all those new services you need."

Like Haines, Minnich grew up out here. He lived in Manchester, which had about a thousand people. That's quadrupled. Now he lives in Westminster, in a neighborhood that was a cow pasture not too many years ago.

"I remember a time," he says, "when we used to say, `There's no restaurants in Carroll County.' I remember jubilation when they opened the first McDonald's out here. It felt like we were finally in the big leagues. People were saying, `Wow, McDonald's.' Now we're doing Panera Bread."

He also remembers a time when there wasn't supposed to be any commercial development on Route 140's Westminster Pike. Now you get to Westminster and there's a string of shopping centers and fast-food joints and commercial development.

Where farmers once worked the land, says Minnich, "There are $700,000 castles going up." Farming's still the county's top industry, though the numbers have diminished. Many farmers have found it far more profitable to sell their land for housing than continue to work it.

So go back to Baugher's Restaurant, with its Norman Rockwell setting, its waitresses who have been here across generations, its fresh produce for sale, and a couple of guys sitting in a booth who have lived out here for a while.

There's Jim Kraft, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Finksburg, and Leonard Williams, a retired federal employee who lives in Eldersburg. Kraft's been out here 34 years. Williams, 28 years.

"I moved out here when I was still teaching at Franklin High in Reisterstown," says Kraft. "I figured out, from the time you left Main Street in Reisterstown, it was eight miles out Route 140 before you saw the next red light. By then, you were in Westminster. And everything around it was open and rural."

"I moved out here from Lochearn" off Liberty Road, says Williams. "There was nothing but clean air and empty fields. Eldersburg was country. Today, we've got a Wal-Mart and a Home Depot and strip malls."

"Back then," says Kraft, "we were the interlopers. It's hard to blame people for wanting to come out here. They're just doing what I did 34 years ago. Heck, some of the old-timers out here still consider me a newcomer."

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