A giant step for a tiny town

New Market split on annexation to add 3,000 new houses

November 24, 2006|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,sun reporter

NEW MARKET -- As they have in years past, shopkeepers and residents in this quaint, historic town are readying to celebrate the Christmas season next weekend with a three-day bash featuring a tree-lighting, holiday concerts and craft show.

But there's tension despite the festive air, as residents debate plans that would transform this small town, where almost everyone seems to know each other, into a modest-sized city with roughly 17 times as many people.

New Market, the self-proclaimed "antiques capital of Maryland," is embroiled in a very modern debate - about how much and how fast to grow. Residents are divided over plans to annex 1,200 acres of former fields and pasture outside town to build more than 3,000 new homes - enough to add about 8,000 residents to the current population of 460.

FOR THE RECORD - An article Friday misstated the number of homes proposed for an annexation under consideration by the town of New Market in Frederick County. The proposal calls for enough land to be annexed to build 3,050 homes. Also, the story understated the number of school sites that two development firms have offered to donate. The firms have offered three sites.
The Sun regrets the errors.

To supporters and opponents alike, the community's survival is at stake.

"We know the growth is coming," Mayor Winslow F. Burhans III said in a recent interview in his home cabinetmaking shop. "We need to get the best out of it."

But Richard S. Fleshman, a former mayor who owns Fleshman's Antiques, says the growth plans being pushed by his successor are "too much, too fast and too soon."

Founded in 1793 as a coach stop on the old National Pike between Baltimore and Frederick, New Market retains a Williamsburg-like charm in its historic district. Brick sidewalks and antique-looking street lamps front 18th- and 19th-century dwellings of brick, frame and stucco.

But change has already washed over New Market, and more is on the way. The two-lane Main Street is choking on traffic - as many as 10,000 vehicles a day, the mayor says. Commuters from outlying subdivisions pour through town on their way to and from Interstate 70, making it a challenge for pedestrians to cross safely.

Two national homebuilders seeking the annexations have pledged a total of nearly $80 million to address the town's traffic woes and a host of other municipal needs and wishes.

The companies, D.R. Horton Inc. and Winchester Homes, have offered to build a four-lane highway to the north of the historic district, which proponents say would provide a long-discussed bypass to divert some traffic off Main Street.

The companies also have offered to donate land for two schools and pay for a variety of other projects, including a new middle school, extension of a public water line into town, a new fire station, new ball fields and a facelift for Main Street, replacing its buckling brick sidewalks and about 70 curbside trees.

In return, the companies are seeking zoning from the town that would allow them to build 3,125 homes and a community shopping center.

"It's got to be a win-win for both of us, or it doesn't work," said Michael J. Conley, vice president of development for Winchester Homes.

The debate is rapidly coming to a head, with a public hearing set for Wednesday, and town officials vowing to vote by year's end. Burhans says he wants the lands annexed by Jan. 1, when a new state law takes effect that would put conditions on such municipal expansions - conditions the mayor fears could delay or perhaps even kill the whole deal.

The law was enacted by the General Assembly this year in response to public furor over a wave of similar development transforming small towns and rural villages on the Eastern Shore. The law, which calls for more collaboration between towns and counties on growth plans, could impose a five-year delay on development of annexed lands where differences are not resolved.

The town's 41-year-old mayor says developers are offering New Market a deal it can't afford to pass up. The community lacks the money to meet current needs, and Frederick County officials have long planned for growth around it - narrowly approving a plan last year to allow 14,000 new homes in the area.

Burhans contends that with these annexations, the town will reach an "optimal size," bringing enough homes and businesses inside its boundaries to raise ample tax revenue. Growth also will bring new blood to municipal boards and commissions, he adds.

But opponents question the need for New Market to grow so much, and warn that the development allowed by annexation will only aggravate the problems it is meant to fix. They point to a traffic study, for instance, that states that Main Street will be even busier in time, even if the bypass is built.

"For many of us, it's kind of a life-or-death struggle on the annexation," said Jim Jamieson, a Montgomery County lawyer whose family owns a farm just outside town. "The developers are throwing money at them, ... and the town council is enamored of all this."

Jamieson is a board member of Friends of Frederick County, a group advocating a slowdown of the development that has made Frederick one of the state's fastest-growing counties - and sparked a voter backlash.

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