Frederick County gets popular, pricey


FREDERICK -- The way people are flocking here and property prices are shooting up, it seems as if there must be gold buried in the gentle slopes of Maryland's most spacious county.

But the prospect of a glittering future is best reflected in the vast expansion planned for Fort Detrick, the county's largest employer and future home to the largest biodefense research center in the country.

Once a quiet dairying center with a rich Civil War heritage, Frederick is now a focal point in the war on terror, a conflict with no definable end. Three new high-security biodefense labs promise to bring thousands of professionals to Fort Detrick's new $1.2 billion National Interagency Biodefense Campus. The labs will phase in about 2,000 jobs during the next 10 to 15 years, said base spokesman Christian Devine.

"I think that's huge," Frederick County Commissioner Michael L. Cady said of Fort Detrick's increasing influence on the area's land prices and ability to attract additional biotech industry. "It's a huge magnet like the North Pole."

Smaller expansions planned for Frederick's MedImmune Inc. and British-owned BP Solar manufacturing are expected to bring 300 or more scientists and engineers to the county, said John Lynn Shanton, president of Maryland's Strategic Marketing Group, which tracks growth in Frederick and nine surrounding counties.

But that's just the beginning, Shanton predicts. He considers the estimates of 2,300 high-paying lab jobs "a conservative number" because Fort Detrick's role in the war on terror will continue to grow. Biotechnology companies, he said, will migrate to the federal contracts tied to research at the new biodefense campus, a 200-acre project scheduled for a 2013 completion.

"The research [and researchers] will just keep coming," Shanton said.

Frederick County was on a growth trajectory even before the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington sent homeland security funds coursing into the country. Between 2000 and 2005, the population swelled by 26,580, to an estimated 221,850 residents -- an annual growth rate of 2.58 percent, more than double the state's 1.15 percent, according to the Maryland Department of Planning. By 2030, the county's population is projected to be 339,700.

Past affordable

In simpler times, Frederick County, the state's largest at 663 square miles, was seen as an affordable option for the working class and the most durable of the Baltimore-Washington area commuters. Its 160 dairy farms and 45-mile distance from the area's well-heeled metropolises tended to insulate it from the steep pricing of city real estate.

That is no longer the case.

Recently, a Virginia developer offered $65 million to Frederick County just for permission to build thousands of upscale homes. And Frederick City townhouses are selling for $749,900. Then there is Lori DuBell's definition of a "bargain" home.

The four-bedroom Frederick house bought "as-is" by DuBell, a real estate agent, in the fall for $430,000 sold new in 1999 for $203,000. Bargains are relative, she said. During the past six months, similar homes in her North Crossings neighborhood sold for $489,900 to $547,500.

There are several other factors driving the land rush to Frederick, including the expansion of Washington's suburbs along the Interstate 270 corridor and the resulting squeeze of supply and demand. But the war on terror is an especially dynamic engine.

Last week, Maryland's Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski announced that Fort Detrick would receive $35 million from the 2006 military construction and defense spending bills. Devine, the base spokesman, said it would likely go toward construction and research, but it's too early to project how many jobs the money would generate.

"What's happening at Detrick is exciting," said Shanton, a retired Navy captain and board member for the Fort Detrick Alliance, a four-year-old, not-for-profit booster group. "We're talking about lots of high-level employees, mostly Ph.D.'s with big salaries" recruited from across the nation.

Biotechnology and its roster of scientists have played a significant role in Frederick ever since the Army moved several of its Washington biodefense units to Fort Detrick in 1978, said Norman M. Covert, a Frederick resident since 1977 and the base's former chief of public affairs.

"That [move] was the impetus that got Frederick to where it is now -- the biotech corridor," said Covert, the author of Cutting Edge, a history of Fort Detrick. With the base's expansions came "stability and affluence for everybody ... and [it made] the housing industry boom."

There is no downside to the growth, Covert argued: "With success everything seems to grow exponential."

But others worry that the county will become out of reach for the working class.

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