County executive candidate aims to keep suburban sprawl in spotlight during race


October 16, 2005|By LARRY CARSON

Slowing development was a major theme of the 1998 political campaigns that brought to office people such as county executive candidate and County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon.

Since then, the pace of development has slowed but, as this year's petition drive to place the council's Comp Lite comprehensive rezoning on the 2006 ballot showed, some people still are upset about growth.

Merdon, a Republican, kept himself on the politically safe side of the issue by voting against the rezoning bill, arguing that it would allow too many new homes and businesses too soon. Council Chairman and Democrat Guy Guzzone's decision not to run for county executive seemed about to calm the development issue.

Enter Harry M. Dunbar, 61, of Owen Brown, a community activist and political outsider who declared recently that he is seeking the Democratic nomination for Howard County executive in 2006. Dunbar, the first African-American candidate to run, is not only opposed to suburban sprawl - he's even opposed to allowing hundreds of new homes and businesses in central Columbia, where they've been planned for years, he said.

Mainstream Democrats consider Dunbar a fringe candidate, a gadfly incapable of influencing larger events. But the issue he has focused on is always lurking in fast-growing suburban places like Howard County, and the political effects of soaring home prices, plus higher costs for gasoline and heating, are unknown.

Instead of a vibrant, more urban-style downtown with high-rise buildings, and more expensive homes and businesses on the parking lots behind Merriweather Post Pavilion, Dunbar, a maverick who has worked on both Democratic and Republican campaigns, said he'd prefer a public park there.

"The masses of the people want a no-growth candidate," said Dunbar, who retired last year from the Social Security Administration and now is selling real estate,

He added that he knows people have the right to develop their land but feels that Howard's schools and roads are too crowded and that government should do more to restrict growth.

"I don't believe that Columbia has to be built up. Developers and the government seem to want it built up. People don't want congestion and the crime that comes with increased development," he said about General Growth's plans for dense new development in central Columbia.

Angela Beltram, the former Democratic councilwoman who led the zoning petition drive, said she welcomes Dunbar's entry into the race, although she is not endorsing him. He helped gather signatures for her group's referendum drive.

"He's going to bring ... [growth] issues to the fore," Beltram said. Her group is planning to develop a series of questions for county executive candidates "to hold their feet to the fire," Beltram said.

Others' plans

Political plans remain fluid for several would-be candidates.

After more than a week of study, Democratic Del. Frank S. Turner has decided not to run for county executive, he said.

Melissa Berger, a county teacher and activist who had begun campaigning for a House of Delegates seat in District 13, has changed her plans, too, she said, now that Guzzone has declared he will run in that race.

"There's three people in my district I did not want to go up against, and he was one of them," she said. "I will be running for something," she added.

And Glenelg's Joan Becker, a real estate attorney active in criticizing county plans for the Western Regional Park, has decided not to run for County Council, she said. That leaves the field free, for now, for Republican Greg Fox. No Democratic candidate has surfaced.

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