Grow, but take it slow

Our view : Frederick has better alternatives than annexation

June 17, 2008

As anyone who has tried to navigate the junction of Interstates 70 and 270 in the late afternoon knows, the city of Frederick has no shortage of drivers on its roads. That congestion is just one reason why proposals to annex land for commercial development and thousands of new homes have some people in the area nervous. Nevertheless, Frederick, which grew like gangbusters during the 1990s, is on track for more growth and development now that the city has secured access to millions of gallons a day of Potomac River water.

All 14 annexation proposals before the Board of Aldermen deserve a fair hearing, but some would appear to consume unacceptably large portions of surrounding green space. Mayor William J. Holtzinger, who fears overtaxing city services for development that offers the city a questionable return, says he would recommend annexing no more than a few of the smaller parcels.

As Frederick County Commissioner John L. Thompson Jr. notes, it is generally preferable to "build up, not out." And in most cases, growth within cities is far preferable to the proliferation of tract homes in Maryland's countryside.

But Frederick, with its many older homes and Civil War-era sites, is a generally low-density city with few tall buildings. Planning for growth there would thus seem to force a choice among unpleasant options: Mar the city's historic character by reshaping its skyline, or further diminish the rural nature of the area by tearing up farm fields and horse pastures.

This need not be the case, however. Mr. Holtzinger, for one, is not afraid of using the word density in regard to areas of the city that are amendable to such development. That's realistic thinking.

Frederick is in some ways a special case; it is surrounded by Maryland's largest county, the vast majority of which is undeveloped. Annexation, if it is smartly planned, may be a useful tool for managing growth. But expanding municipal boundaries to accommodate development should not be a solution of first resort for any city in Maryland. For a small state facing an increase of perhaps a million people in the next 20 years - and yet hoping to preserve as much open space as possible - there is simply no alternative to learning to live with greater density.

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