Dunbar has little money, party backing, but his run has touched on a sensitive issue

Novice brings growth to fore

Maryland votes 2006

September 01, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

Harry M. Dunbar's campaign to be Howard County executive seems like a classic novice's effort.

The maverick Democrat has little money for advertising and has been shunned by mainstream party members, who are backing County Councilman Ken Ulman in the Sept. 12 primary.

The 62-year-old federal retiree and real estate agent has based his campaign on dissatisfaction with the pace of development, making flamboyant, often inaccurate charges about the most sensitive political issue in the county this year.

At a candidates forum Monday night in Harper's Choice, Dunbar again assailed plans for a high-rise near Lake Kittamaqundi and the redevelopment of Town Center, recalling the green open spaces when he arrived in the new town from New York City in 1973.

"That's when I feel we had the highest quality of life because we had uncrowded schools and less density," he said, adding there "were no cars and no noise."

Ulman countered that the original plans for Columbia always envisioned a more concentrated, but pedestrian-friendly town center.

Despite Dunbar's populist stance, his campaign has not appeared to draw much support. Through Aug. 27, state campaign finance reports showed Dunbar raised $1,697 this year and had $364.29 on hand. Ulman raised $386,380 during the same period, and he reported $335,734 on hand.

Ulman, 32, has largely ignored Dunbar, appearing to look instead toward a general election battle with council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, 35, the Republican candidate, and C. Stephen Wallis, 56, an independent.

Ulman, who represents west Columbia and Fulton, talks about Howard's first-rate school system, libraries, expanding park system, low crime rate and how desirable a place the county is to live. He also stresses his efforts to help preserve Merriweather Post Pavilion, and in sponsoring the planning charrette last fall on central Columbia's future, a process that is under way.

"I am proud to have stood up strongly in supporting investing in our quality of life," he said at a recent forum.

However, he said more work needs to be done on the plan for downtown Columbia, which includes adding 5,500 housing units, stores, offices and a hotel.

"I thought 5,000 units is ludicrous. The vision that emerged from the charrette is too intense. It wouldn't work," Ulman said.

While observers don't expect Dunbar to win the primary, they don't discount his message.

"I think Harry's done a great job creating a conversation about things people are normally reluctant to talk about, like development," said Mary Catherine Cochran, an activist with Dunbar in the grass-roots petition drive that gathered more than 6,000 signatures to protest a comprehensive rezoning bill.

People may not believe the specific things Dunbar says, Cochran added, but "most voters in Howard County understand that he's just expressing the level of frustration they feel."

Dunbar calls himself the "slow-growth candidate" and often repeats comments such as these he made at a recent League of Women Voters forum.

"The most important issue is runaway growth. Sixty percent of our tax dollars are spent on schools because of uncontrolled development," Dunbar said. "The developers are running Howard County."

He has accused Ulman of making "backroom" deals with developers to allow construction of the proposed 23-story high-rise in Columbia, and he said that county government was "placing millions in the budget to expand water and sewer lines into western Howard County."

Dunbar wants to see a publicly financed convention center and a hotel built behind Merriweather Post Pavilion instead of new homes, apartments, stores and offices, and he wants to cut in half the number of new homes allowed to be built in the county annually.

And just because he is running against Ulman in the primary does not mean Dunbar has nothing to say about Merdon.

"There's not a dime's worth of difference between Ulman and Merdon on schools and uncontrolled growth. I'm an alternative to both these persons," Dunbar said.

He has accused both of accepting so much campaign money from developers that their independence is suspect - a charge they both deny.

Despite the claims of runaway growth, the reality is quite different, said Ulman and Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director.

"I think there's a lot of misunderstanding," McLaughlin said, noting that Howard County has a two-tiered system of housing allocations and a school-crowding test that together tightly control how many homes can be built each year. Builders must get in line for allocations and then must pass the school-crowding test before they can begin seeking building permits. In some areas, such as Elkridge, no allocations will be available for years.

The pace of home construction - an average of 1,685 units a year for the past five years - is "way below what we did in the '80s and '90s. There's a gross misunderstanding at how tightly controlled development is," McLaughlin said.

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