Slow The Growth, State's Voters Say

Marylanders' concern about the rate of development could have a significant impact on local elections in 2006


Most Maryland voters think their communities are growing too fast, a new poll by The Sun shows, with discontent over the pace of development running highest in some of the state's largest suburban counties and in rural areas.

The poll, in which more than 60 percent of Anne Arundel and Howard county voters complained that growth was happening too fast in their areas, suggests that the issue could dominate local elections in those counties next year, with incumbents likely to be blamed for perceived runaway development.

It's less clear how - or even whether - slow-growth fervor will affect the gubernatorial race, because concern about development varies in intensity around the state. In Baltimore City, for example, which has seen a recent uptick in redevelopment after decades of job and population losses, the vast majority of voters queried said they think the pace of growth there has been either "about right" or even "too slow."

Statewide, 34 percent of voters rated growth in their area as "much too fast." Another 17 percent called the pace of development "a little too fast," while 36 percent said they felt it was "about right." Conversely, 10 percent said that development in their communities was proceeding too slowly.

But the share of voters complaining that growth in their area is "much too fast" climbs to 39 percent in Montgomery County, 38 percent in Anne Arundel and Howard counties and 37 percent in the state's rural areas.

The Sun telephone poll of 1,008 likely voters took place between Oct. 27 and Nov. 1. It has a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points.

`Alarming' reaction

Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., the nonpartisan, independent firm in Bethesda that conducted the poll, described the level of anti-growth sentiment in those areas as "alarming" and forecast political fallout next year.

"Typically, when the `much too fast' group gets fairly significant," Haller said, "then you start to see those people get riled up for political action and take it out on the ballot box."

Though most local elections in Maryland are a year away, there are signs of political backlash over growth.

Residents upset about the spread of urbanization in once-rural Howard County collected enough signatures this past summer to put the most recent comprehensive rezoning on the ballot next November. A lawsuit has been filed by property owners seeking to block the vote, but protesters vow to make an election issue of the county's growth.

"The whole county eventually is going to be one big city again," complained Charles T. Fulcher, 76, of Glenelg in western Howard, where residents lately have divided over plans to widen Route 32 to ease commuter gridlock. "Most of the people that moved out here wanted at least a semi-rural area."

In Frederick, meanwhile, voters chose a Republican newcomer, William "Jeff" Holtzinger, to be their mayor in last week's municipal elections, bypassing Democratic ex-mayor Ron Young. The GOP candidate's anti-growth message appeared to resonate with many voters in the upset.

"It's just incredible the way taxes are going up around here," said Connie Miller, 44. She said she and her husband voted for Holtzinger in hopes he would lessen traffic and lower taxes.

As the Frederick election demonstrates, concern about growth cuts across party lines. In The Sun poll, 39 percent of Republicans statewide say growth is "much too fast," outpacing the 30 percent of Democrats with the same view.

"The development issue cuts against the incumbent, regardless of party," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster. Other incumbents have lost in recent races, he noted, including two commissioners in Carroll County. "Whoever is in charge, or perceived to be in charge, is seen as at fault," he added.

Only 2 percent of those polled by The Sun ranked growth as the most important challenge facing the state today. Voters listed education and schools as their top concern, with transportation and traffic second.

But advocates for better planned growth contend that public complaints about overcrowded schools and traffic congestion are aimed at poorly planned development. They note that other, more localized, polls in Maryland have identified growth as voters' top concern.

"It's not surprising to us that in Arundel, Howard and Montgomery, growth is seen as too fast," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. He predicted that unhappiness over jammed roads, crowded schools and growth could increase with the shift of thousands of military jobs from Washington, D.C., and its inner suburbs to Fort Meade in Anne Arundel.

"It just seems this area is growing so fast that the public officials can't keep up with it, and they don't seem to have any plan," said Jerry Parrish, 71, of Odenton, reflecting the sentiments of those Arundel residents who complained that growth there has been much too fast.

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