Annexation divides town

Views on farm could decide the May 1 election in Mount Airy


Mount Airy's May 1 election could be decided on the town's most divisive issue: whether the candidates support the Town Council's annexation of a 152-acre farm.

The four Town Council candidates and three mayoral candidates are split on the annexation issue, the question of how to manage growth in the town, which straddles the Carroll/Frederick county line, and how to obtain water sources to support new development.

Tensions increased last week as Mayor James S. Holt urged the state to investigate a leak involving an ethics commission complaint. The complaint alleges that a planning and zoning commission member has a conflict of interest with developer Robert Scranton, who plans to build 275 homes on the annexed property.

Holt said he believes the leak represents an attempt to try to sway the election.

"Things are very polarized now," said the mayor, who opposed the annexation in February but wants to see more commercial development in town. "There are people that want growth and people that don't. Each group has its own good reasons about what it wants."

The annexation of the Frederick County farm goes to referendum during the May election.

As part of the annexation agreement, the developer would receive 79 acres of Mount Airy parkland in exchange for a 24-acre park and a 55-acre school site. But some residents consider the two parcels less valuable.

In 2002, the town's beautification commission had the 79-acre parcel designated as a nature trail, with walking paths and pristine views.

"That land has the potential to be a major asset to the town, but once it's gone, it's gone forever," said Frank Johnson, a former Town Council president who is running for mayor. "Parks and natural areas are rare in the middle of a town and certainly enhance the quality of life for everybody."

Opponents of the land sale collected 1,817 valid signatures on a petition - nearly twice the number required - to get the issue on the ballot. The residents who organized the petition drive said they would support a ticket that includes Johnson for mayor and John Woodhull and Gary Nelson for the two Town Council seats.

Woodhull, who helped circulate the petitions, said the developer's plan to take water from the South Branch of the Patapsco River is unsafe. He said the water could contain carcinogens.

Although he believes a majority of the town's residents oppose the annexation, Woodhull said they have to work to get the word out.

"We had 2,000 people sign the petition, but we stood in 2,000 doorways to do it," he said. "We've got to get those 2,000 people to the polls."

When Town Council Secretary Chris DeColli was elected in 2002, he spoke out against the town's rapid population growth that was overwhelming schools and water resources.

Four years later, he co-authored the annexation agreement, saying he believes that the appropriate resources are in place.

"My philosophy has not changed one bit," DeColli said. "The Zeltman annexation is the only [residential development] we've approved in four years. It's not like we opened the floodgates and we're going to run this town rampant."

DeColli said he is worried that if Mount Airy doesn't annex the land, Frederick County still will build homes there, filling the schools and roads. Plus, he stressed that it would take several years before Scranton begins developing the property at a rate of 40 homes a year.

Residents pushing for the annexation said they would vote for a slate that includes Keith Gehle for mayor and DeColli and Jay Neuman for Town Council.

Resident Donnamarie Needle said she supports the annexation because it would bring an additional water source, a school and recreational fields to the town.

"If the growth happens outside in the county, the town doesn't have any control over it," Needle said. "The Zeltmans are going to sell their farm regardless."

Though opposed to the annexation, Richard Swanson described himself as a more independent candidate who wouldn't run on a ticket in the mayoral race.

With about 400 houses approved before 2002 still to be built in Mount Airy, Swanson said he worries most about finding new water sources.

"I don't want to be beholden to any small faction of the population," Swanson said. "My stand against Zeltman is my reading of what's best for Mount Airy."

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