Growth takes big hit in vote

Project's rejection in Mount Airy seen as an indicator for the general election


Mount Airy's landslide election results yesterday signal a backlash against residential growth in the town where nearly three out of four voters rejected by referendum the Town Council's contentious annexation of a 152-acre farm.

A record number of voters turned out to choose a slate of slow-growth candidates for mayor and Town Council who had campaigned against the annexation of land where a 275-home subdivision was planned.

The battle over annexation in the town of 8,500 that straddles the Carroll and Frederick county lines is seen as an indicator of a larger political feud on how to manage growth in the state.

Concerns about growth should affect the local and state primaries in September and the November general election, according to experts on the issue.

"Those issues will be a big part of the 2006 elections," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, an environmental group that advocates preservation of rural land.

"People are increasingly concerned about the impact of development and the direction of the state. We need to have that be a part of the debate during the elections and then move forward into real policy change," she said.

During the recent General Assembly session, a Senate bill that would have limited the right of cities and towns to annex land for development caused a dispute between the Maryland Municipal League and the Maryland Association of Counties. A compromise House bill, signed by the governor yesterday, requires municipalities to cooperate with county government on annexation issues, but it does not give the counties veto power.

In Mount Airy, the Town Council approved the farm annexation in February, despite residents' opposition.

CBI Development Group partner Rob Scranton, who proposed the subdivision, was pursuing a plan to build a small reservoir and tap into the South Branch of the Patapsco River for the town. The water source was tied to an additional annexation, which was not enacted.

Attempts yesterday to reach Scranton for comment were not successful.

More than 1,400 of the almost 2,000 voters who turned out Monday for Mount Airy's election rejected the annexation of the Zeltman Farm in a referendum.

Frank Johnson, who won the mayoral contest, and John Woodhull and Gary Nelson, who garnered the most votes for Town Council, ran on a ticket that opposed the residential development. They also favored seeking groundwater options over what they called expensive surface water projects.

Town Council member Chris DeColli, who campaigned against rapid growth in 2002, came in third in the race. DeColli, who was not re-elected, changed course this year and supported the farm annexation -- the first residential development the Town Council had approved during DeColli's four-year term.

John Frece of the National Center for Smart Growth Research at the University of Maryland said local governments often shift positions on growth.

"What we tend to see a lot of times with this issue is the pendulum swinging back and forth, from pro- to anti-growth and then back again," Frece said.

Disputes over growth and annexation intensified at the county level around 2002 on the Eastern Shore and when pro-growth incumbents were ousted during the Carroll County commissioners election primary, said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College.

"It's now gone from the countywide to the municipality level," Smith said. "Voters want to maintain the status quo and will defend it if there is a threat. Through rural and suburban jurisdictions, growth is increasingly perceived as a threat."

Jean Zeltman, owner of the farm, said she was distraught about the election results.

"I really was just stunned," said Zeltman, who said the annexation would have provided water and a Frederick County school site. "I definitely feel it's the town's loss, especially for those who live in Frederick County. ... I do not understand it at all."

Before any new development is approved in the next four years, resources need to be in place first, said Johnson, Mount Airy's mayor-elect.

"We do have a number of homes already approved and in the pipeline," he said. "We need to be very cognizant of that before saying where we want to go in the future."

He said he believes that the town's election results could be pivotal for others hoping to control growth in the state.

"I think a lot of people were looking at the Mount Airy elections as a bellwether in terms of what citizens are thinking on growth issues," Johnson said. "I don't see it as anti-growth or no growth, but I do see it as very pro-community."

Mount Airy Election Results

Mayor Votes

Frank Johnson 1,232

Keith Gehle 518

Richard Swanson 221

Town Council Votes

John Woodhull 1,325

Gary Nelson 1,240

Chris DeColli 596

Jay Neuman 584

Annexation Referendum Votes

No votes 1,413

Yes votes 560

[Source: Town of Mount Airy]

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