Board grows to meet needs of population

Commissioners challenged to add schools, roads but keep rural aura

April 23, 2006|By MARY GAIL HARE | MARY GAIL HARE,SUN REPORTER

The political landscape will definitely change in Carroll County this year, and with hundreds of residents participating in a countywide planning effort, the area's aesthetics might soon undergo subtle changes, too.

The Board of County Commissioners will expand from three members, elected at large, to five, who were to be elected by district in November.

The General Assembly, which was given the task of enacting an official district map, however, concluded April 10 without voting on a map defining the five districts. The decision on district lines may fall to the courts.

If the courts cannot decide in a timely manner, candidates will most likely run at large and the five top vote-getters in November's election will become the next board of commissioners.

Although several initiatives to alter county government have failed at the polls in the past 20 years, the five-commissioner initiative won voter approval in 2004. When the expanded board takes office in December, it will mark the first structural change in government leadership in the county's history.

"This county has had a three-commissioner government since the time before the Civil War," said state Del. Donald B. Elliott, who pushed the expansion to referendum in 2004. "We are coming up on a population of nearly 200,000 people. It is time for changing governance."

Among the projects that the new board will tackle are three new schools and an equal number of additional parks, a South Carroll Senior Center with a full-size gymnasium and a firefighter training center.

County residents will see road improvements along Route 140 in Westminster and Routes 26 and 32 in South Carroll, and the state will break ground this year on the $76 million Hampstead bypass, a 4 1/2 -mile road that has been nearly 40 years in the planning.

Officials will soon have to decide on a 20-year, $60 million improvement plan for the Carroll County Regional Airport and consider spending $80 million for construction of a new jail. Carroll County is consistently rated as the safest in Maryland, but officials are working with a static number of state police, who have, for three decades, been the main law enforcement agency. The situation might lead to the creation of a county police force.

The new board will also have to approve a comprehensive reworking of the county's master plan for growth.

To give residents a voice in the future of their communities, the county has launched Pathways to Carroll's Future Landscape, which participants quickly shortened to "Pathways." The countywide effort will determine whether and how Carroll will keep its rolling farmland, its Main Streets and its small-town character well into this century.

"I hope all the towns and community planning areas get involved in this plan so that we can redevelop and come up with the aesthetics that everybody wants for the county," said Commissioner Perry L. Jones. "What we need is to be visionaries and to think outside the box. Then, this effort will come out really well and be worth the time we put into it."

Carroll's population is about 170,000, with seven of every 10 homes sold in the past year going to newcomers. That level of growth means more classrooms, roads and services. But, along the way to more infrastructure, Carroll does not want to lose its rural roots, its attractive quality of life and its country flavor.

"People are saying they want to get back to what Carroll County is all about, and we are encouraging that," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "As word about Pathways spreads, more people are becoming interested. They want the county's beautiful farmland to remain and they are looking at architecture. They don't like the cookie-cutter look of subdivisions."

The county is halfway to its goal of permanently preserving from development 100,000 acres of farmland. Carroll, a national leader in preservation efforts, was recently one of six jurisdictions in the nation to win a County Leadership in Conservation Award, sponsored by the Trust for Public Land. The trust, a national nonprofit preservation organization, highlighted Carroll's Critical Farms Program, which has helped 22 families to purchase working farms and another 14 farmers to expand their operations.

"People all across the nation will be copying our program," Gouge said. "With our Critical Farms, we have saved about 6,000 acres on 49 farms" from development.

Carroll's buildable-lot inventory includes nearly 36,000 additional home sites, with nearly one-third of those outside planned growth areas, such as the county's eight towns. Jones said that those 6,000 preserved acres could have led to an equal number of homes that would have demanded more schools, roads, and police and emergency services. Farm preservation actually saves the county money, he said.

Residents overwhelmingly support preservation efforts, officials said.

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