For many, Carroll is a destination of choice

April 24, 2005|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Lured by the promise of rural vistas, quality schools and safe communities, new residents are flocking to Carroll County and expanding the population in numbers that are nearly twice the national average.

Since the 2000 census, the county has added about 16,000 residents, and the population is expected to grow by nearly 10 percent by 2010. The county commissioners have made high-paying jobs, road and school improvements and additional social services their priorities.

"It's beautiful here with lots of the farmland that people crave," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "There's low crime, reasonable taxes and you can still get your own space of land. People who live here are friendly, easygoing and very stable. It's the community that everyone strives for."

Buyers are paying an average $303,000 for a new single-family home, often on a quarter-acre lot, in a county where more than half of the homes have been built in the past 25 years. That growth has spurred school and road construction, expanded senior centers and libraries and led to more community services.

"People are finding that moving farther out is a good investment," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich.

Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr. said, "We don't have interstates, but we have quality of life. I think people will keep coming here until we run out of land or until we preserve more of it."

Residential construction has taken its toll. The commissioners declared a yearlong growth freeze, which ended in June, in an effort to meet the demands of development and rewrite the master plan for growth.

Development has made its most visible impact on county roads. The state has pledged nearly $200 million in road improvements to the county over the next six years and will begin construction of the $76 million Hampstead Bypass next year and a $3.4 million road that should relieve New Windsor of its truck traffic. Officials recently celebrated the completion of a $2.3 million improvement to Main Street in Union Bridge.

More than five years after the state scrapped the concept, the commissioners are reconsidering the Westminster Bypass. The board has appointed a blue-ribbon panel that will make recommendations to build the proposed route around the county seat or put the idea to rest.

The bypass would be an alternative for some of the nearly 51,000 vehicles that travel through the city on Route 140 daily, many driven by out-of-county Maryland and southern Pennsylvania commuters. Traffic on Route 140 could grow to nearly 80,000 vehicles a day in the next 20 years, state highway officials said.

The state and county have committed funds to major road improvements in South Carroll, the county's most populous and fastest-growing area. Proposals call for service roads, landscaping and sidewalks along Route 26 in Eldersburg and widening a segment of Route 32 from MacBeth Way to Route 26.

A combination of state, county and private funding will build an $8.6 million intersection and connector roads on Route 32 in Sykesville. The new crossing will serve the Warfield Complex, where the town hopes to create a business and academic center.

Despite the congested roads, residents are willing to live in Carroll and endure longer commutes to their jobs.

Nearly 60 percent of the county's work force commutes daily to employment outside the county. The commissioners have enacted a campus zoning initiative that they hope will create business parks and bring more high-paying jobs to the area.

They have made the Warfield project and several business centers in Westminster economic development priorities and have budgeted more than $1 million to provide the electronic infrastructure that could help attract industry.

"We need to encourage economic development so an industrial base can take some burden off residential taxpayers," Minnich said in his State of the County address this year.

Carroll County Regional Airport is about to undergo more than $58 million in improvements that will double its capacity, enhance fuel sales and allow larger aircraft to land at the facility in Westminster. The bulk of the funding for the upgrades will come from the Federal Aviation Administration.

"We are finding ways to help pay for growth and the demand for services," Jones said.

Agriculture and construction remain the leading industries in the county. Carroll is firmly established as a national leader in farmland preservation and is nearly halfway to its goal of permanently safeguarding 100,000 acres from development.

The commissioners are expected to budget $3 million to agricultural land preservation during the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. The money could help the county add almost 3,000 acres to the nearly 45,000 permanently protected from development, officials said.

"We are fully committed to farmland preservation," said Gouge, who has pushed preservation programs throughout four terms as commissioner.

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