Frederick revives debate on growth

Water deal opens door to wave of development

June 09, 2008|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

FREDERICK - The clustered church spires immortalized in a famous Civil War poem still anchor the downtown skyline of this historic city. But the "green-walled hills" cradling the town are likely to sprout walls of brick, concrete and vinyl siding if a bevy of developers gets its way.

Municipal officials are weighing no fewer than 14 requests to annex nearly 2,300 acres - much of it farm fields and horse pasture - so that developers can build millions of square feet of new offices, stores and restaurants and up to 6,400 homes.

The flurry of development proposals could boost the population of Maryland's third-largest city, already a popular home for Washington commuters, by 25 percent.

They come as Frederick emerges from a prolonged building slowdown forced on it by a shortage of water - a shortage eased in recent months by a deal to pipe in more from the Potomac River a dozen miles to the south.

But with the water crisis still fresh, and the surrounding county still struggling to cope with past growth spurts, local officials and residents are debating where, how - and how much - Frederick ought to expand its borders.

"It's ironic - I'm probably the least pro-growth mayor we've had in a long time," said Mayor William J. "Jeff" Holtzinger, "but we'll probably have a lot of annexation because we've been held up so long."

Janice Wiles, director of the slow-growth group Friends of Frederick County, says the city needs to rethink its long-standing plans to expand because the community already is choking on traffic and people. The junction of Interstates 70 and 270 is clogged with commuters, and schools in and around the city are overcrowded, she said.

"People still want to maintain our rural character," said Wiles, who lives in the city. "Chomping away at these big farms isn't going to do that."

It has been six years since the city last annexed land - a 23-acre tract for commercial development that has yet to be completely used. That same year, building ground to a halt because the city nearly ran out of water. Maryland was gripped by a severe drought then, but officials also said development had outstripped the city's ability to supply water to its businesses and residents. Building resumed at a slower place the next year.

Now, with an agreement to buy from the county up to 8 million gallons pumped daily from the Potomac, city officials say they're looking to resume "normal" growth of about 700 homes a year. But even that much water won't supply all the development previously approved and the annexation proposals as well.

Holtzinger, a Frederick native and former city engineer, agrees that the city's growth plan needs rethinking and probably scaling back. He said he is weighing recommending going forward, for now, with no more than a few of the proposals, most likely smaller tracts proposed for commercial development that are essentially surrounded by the city already. But the decision lies with the city's five aldermen.

The mayor said he, too, liked the city better back when its population was half what it is today. But the city sits in one of the fastest-growing counties, on the spreading fringes of Washington and Baltimore. The latest census estimates put the population at nearly 60,000, with planners projecting a 50 percent increase over the next two decades.

The developers' requests for annexed land promise the city a mix of housing, offices, shops and restaurants - plus a senior-care facility, a trendy Wegmans grocery store and even a solar power plant. The projects would generate jobs and boost the city's tax revenue, developers contend.

Some of the proposed housing is aimed at the new workers expected at Fort Detrick as the federal government builds a new biomedical defense research complex there. The Army base, on the western side of town, employs nearly 8,000 and expects to add 1,400 jobs over the next few years.

The largest of the annexation requests would develop Glade Valley, a postcard-pretty horse breeding farm in the gently rolling countryside across the Monocacy River from the city. Beazer Homes, a national builder, has promised "one of the most environmentally sustainable communities ever constructed in Maryland," with energy- and water-efficient homes. A 12-acre array of solar collectors could generate 4 megawatts of electricity

The developer also has pledged to make 10 percent of the 2,300 homes it wants to build there affordable, to build a school and swimming center, and to provide shuttle bus service to the commuter rail station in town.

"We're hoping it can be a national model ... for community design," said George Rathlev, a Beazer executive. The city's revived interest in expansion comes as the elected leaders of surrounding Frederick County have put the brakes on growth - imposing a two-year moratorium on new projects while they re-evaluate the county's development plans.

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