Growing concerns

As the population rises in St. Mary's County, growth is on voters' minds and politics are in tumult

Maryland Votes 2006 -- 39 Day Until Nov., 7

September 29, 2006|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN REPORTER

CALIFORNIA — CALIFORNIA-- --A kingfisher divebombs into a thicket of reeds. A majestic blue heron with time on its hands glides overhead at cruise-control speed. But all's not well at Mill Creek.

The river otters have vanished. And those once-busy beavers are disappearing along with the creek bottom itself. Silt from a nearby high-end housing development is apparently clogging this St. Mary's County stream.

"If you were to try and stand up in here," says Robert Willey, 55, a civil service budget analyst and lifelong county resident, gazing at brackish water from the front seat of his canoe, "you'd go knee-deep in mud."

With the population in this Southern Maryland county soon to surpass 100,000 and a 30 percent spurt on the horizon, Willey and his neighbors are worried about growth. It is among their top concerns, they say, as they prepare to head to the polls Nov. 7 and cast votes for governor, U.S. Senate and a range of local candidates.

"I don't want to look and feel like Montgomery County," says Kellie Gofus, a friend of Willey's steering the canoe and taking a jab at the state's most populous jurisdiction. She and her husband had to sell their power boat because it can no longer maneuver in Mill Creek.

Much is in flux in the once-sleepy St. Mary's. The population hovered around 15,000 from 1790 until World War II. In 1943, Patuxent Naval Air Station moved to the peninsula. That wake-up call is still sounding as residents are jostled by traffic, crime and sprawl.

Route 235, which runs down the spine of the county, is eight lanes wide in parts. Still, five-mile traffic jams are common. Home prices have spiked beyond the reach of most young families as the median price approaches $280,000. Trailer parks are becoming passe, while mansions rise in cornfields; bedrooms are a bumper crop.

A water crisis looms a few decades down the road, the Maryland Geological Survey warns. Schools are filled beyond capacity. Volunteer fire and rescue services have been stretched uncomfortably thin.

Likewise, the area's politics also seem in tumult.

Once a bastion of conservative-leaning Southern Democrats, St. Mary's saw legions of voters change parties during the Reagan revolution, so much so that party registrations are almost evenly divided at 20,000 apiece.

Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. carried the county with 63 percent of the vote in 2002. Some think he'll cruise to easy victory again. Others believe that Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the Democratic nominee, can make inroads.

On Monday morning, former Democratic county Commissioner Joe Anderson sat in Linda's Cafe in Lexington Park - a favorite hangout by the gates of Patuxent Naval Air Station - having coffee with former state Sen. J. Frank Raley, at 80 years old one of the county's Democratic warhorses. They were handicapping the gubernatorial race.

Raley expects Ehrlich to win the county by a healthy margin, noting that former Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening courted St. Mary's by generously dispensing state funds, especially for education, but to no avail.

"When he ran, did he carry the county? No!," Raley says.

Anderson, president of the St. Mary's River Watershed Association, was part of a slate of renegade, control-growth commissioners who were swept into office in 1998 - and swept right out in 2002. He believes that O'Malley can pull as much as 50 percent in the county.

The political winds have shifted, he says. A growth-and-development tipping point may have been reached with voters.

What makes him think so? Jack Russell.

Russell, a 63-year-old former waterman from St. George Island, is a boat captain who also runs a small nonprofit organization called the Chesapeake Bay Field Lab. A political novice, he won this month's Democratic primary for president of the board of county commissioners, thumping two better-known, better-dressed mainstream candidates.

"He ran 2-to-1," Anderson tells Raley, "and that says something to me even in a primary."

Russell - who wears tie-dyed shirts and shorts, and has the rough hands of a blue-collar man used to scratching for a dollar - proved a surprisingly formidable candidate. He figures he knocked on 2,000 doors and raised $30,000 in small-donor contributions.

"I think the overriding issue in St. Mary's County is just the growth we've had the last several years," Russell says, "the loss of identity, the loss of community."

Russell's victory may seem small potatoes to outsiders, but county wags are impressed.

"He locked into the fact people are fed up with irresponsible growth," says Kenny Rossignol, a pizzeria owner who doubles as editor and publisher of St. Mary's Today, a muckraking community newspaper.

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