Suburban Md. all stirred up about growth

Traffic, crowded schools play roles in elections

October 27, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN REPORTER

From the Eastern Shore to Allegany County and Silver Spring to Aberdeen, suburban voters are riled up about development, angered by what they view as too many new homes, too much traffic and too many crowded schools.

"It's been a top issue, I think, in every county of the state," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a private environmental conservation group that helped sponsor a group of "visioning" exercises around the state this year to draft blueprints for long term growth.

And the politicians appear to have taken note.

In prosperous Howard County - where prime development land is ever more scarce - growth is the top election issue, and slowing it is central to Republican Christopher J. Merdon's campaign.

Officials in Harford and Anne Arundel counties find themselves scrambling to explain how they plan to cope with thousands of new defense jobs expected from the federal government's military base realignment program in the next several years.

And in Carroll and Frederick counties, both home to an increasing number of residents who work in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., water supply problems have periodically forced a halt to building in some areas.

"People are beginning to feel the side effects with traffic, or when their kids are redistricted [in school] every few years," said Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County. "Those kinds of things make people notice."

But Tom Ballentine, government affairs director of the Maryland Association of Homebuilders, cautions that voters should be skeptical of candidates who take tough slow-growth positions.

"Candidates that are stridently anti-growth in their message tend to be candidates that have some kind of weakness," he said. "They're looking for a message that plays on the emotions of growth issues."

Ballentine said that tactics such as restrictive growth controls and impact fees on new homes merely increase home prices and push homebuilders - and buyers - to more rural areas, producing longer commutes and more traffic congestion.

"Builders are interested in seeing growth management plans established in a systematic way. The smart growth areas need to function as places where people work and live in the future," he said.

In Howard County, Merdon is riding a wave of resentment over a zoning bill - still tangled up in court challenges - which would allow development in dozens of older residential communities around the county. Merdon was the only council member to vote against the bill, contrasting him with Democratic nominee Ken Ulman, who voted for it.

In Harford and Anne Arundel counties, the thousands of new defense jobs coming with the federal Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) complicate the issue, increasing tensions over congestion.

Some in Anne Arundel County have called for building moratoriums and impact fees, and one candidate wants a ban on big-box stores in the south county.

"Growth is driving the discussion, that's the only way to put it," said County Council Chairman Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican.

The Democratic candidate for Anne Arundel County executive, George F. Johnson, mailed a color flier with the word "WHOAA!" emblazoned over a photo of him blocking a bulldozer's path with a raised hand. Republican candidate John R. Leopold contends that's a false image and that he is the only candidate free of developers' influence.

In Harford County, Executive David R. Craig vetoed a comprehensive rezoning bill that he felt allowed development to encroach on residential areas outside the county's designated growth area along its most heavily traveled highway corridors.

Craig also has criticized Ann C. Helton, the Democratic candidate, who is married to a developer. She contends his business involves renewing older areas, not new subdivisions, while saying that Craig's donations from builders will leave him beholden to them.

"What has been an issue is that a lot of citizens want more of a say in the development process," said Roxanne Lynch, a spokeswoman for Craig.

But community activists such as Friends of Harford president Judy Blomquist worry that, after the election, the political rhetoric may prove to be just that.

"They're all giving us lip service," she said, adding that her group has tried over the past decade "to break the bond between developers and politicians," and will be closely watching those who win.

In Baltimore County, growth issues have involved redevelopment of country club golf courses in Pikesville and Towson and congestion in Perry Hall and White Marsh. Candidates in areas from Dundalk to the rural north county have vowed to ensure that officials follow growth control plans and limit development in rural areas.

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