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Frederick County Fights Over The "S" Word

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Frederick county residents are battling the local government over how to control residential and commercial growth.
Doug Kerr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dougtone/6263526510/
Frederick county residents are battling the local government over how to control residential and commercial growth.

A piece of the American dream

Frederick County can be a very scenic place. Rolling mounds of farmland slope into tidy subdivisions, with picturesque hills in the backdrop. It's one reason people move there.

"My husband works in Bethesda, but we picked here because we wanted more of a neighborhood and we didn't want a whole lot of neighbors," says Nancy Dunn, who came to Frederick about six years ago. "We especially picked here because we like the woods behind us; that's where my son is right now. He's in the woods playing with the cat. We didn't want block after block after block of people."

Domenic Turchi, who lives in Urbana, says the land isn't as expensive as in other counties.

"We moved mainly due to financial considerations," she says. "We moved closer to Frederick due to the kids needing to go to school at a newer school, a newer development that was expanding... My parents enjoy landscaping ....we do enjoy the whole yard thing."

Sprawling to escape sprawl

The land is cheaper, and the trees are prettier. But when everyone has that on his or her wish list, something changes--the traffic.

"It's overcrowded," says Mike Camp, who has lived in Frederick for 30 years. "Since I grew up here, there was a lot more farmland."

Camp says the area has populated with stereotypical strip malls, and the once rural setting has evolved into a cookie cutter suburban community.

"I can't even imagine what it's gonna be like 20 years from now, says Casey Friedland, who moved here with her family 19 years ago. "It's gonna be crazy."

Overdevelopment is a concern for some residents. Dunn says if her neighborhood is developed any more, especially the woods behind her house, she's out. And Camp says she would like a little more separation, "more room to breathe."

Liberty and justice for all... just not land?

The county government and citizens' groups are involved in a fierce battle over how to control -- or not control -- continued residential and commercial growth.

"Over the past 40 years, we've been using up land at three times the population growth," says Andy Ratner, with the state of Maryland. " We've used up as much land in 40 years as we have in the 300 years before that."

Ratner says the state has a problem with sprawl, and its long-term effects can be expensive. He says the long-term impact will cost taxpayers more money; additional funds will be needed for environmental maintenance and to pay for roads and schools farther out.

In 2010, the Frederick County Planning Commission created a 20-year plan that included rezoning pieces of the county from areas that had originally been approved for commercial or residential development back to farmland.

Oscar Fustra, who owns some of the land that was downsized, says the decision doesn't make any economic sense.

"The property value went down from a couple million dollars down to a couple hundred thousand dollars," says Fustra.

"This is about property rights," says Blaine Young, who is on the chair. "Many folks got up and said this was my investment, this was my retirement, it was taken away with a stroke of a pen and I was not compensated in any way, shape or form."

The fight for property rights

The fight has only escalated. The county's planning commission refused to reopen the plan, the county commissioners are trying to redo it anyway, and a whole host of groups is suing to stop them, arguing they don't have the authority to change plans so abruptly.

Norman Knopf, a representative of one of the groups, points out that many of those who want to scrap the old plan are developers, some of whom have grievances that long predate the county's downzoning.

"What reasonable growth can accommodate is not necessarily what the developer community wants to accommodate," says Knopf. "The bigger the development, the more money they can make. Then they leave the development when it's in place, and they leave the taxpayer with the infrastructure costs to make it work. We see it all the time."

Knopf argues that community leaders don't fully understand how unmanaged growth will cost them in the long run.

"Sixty percent of our elementary schools had trailers, so they were overcrowded, says Janice Wiles, with Friends of Frederick, one of the plaintiffs. "We have a billion dollar deficit to bring our roads up to where they should be for the cars."

Other groups point to the environmental consequences of building farther and farther out.

"The lot sizes of those houses tend to be larger - so you have more impervious surfaces," says Alison Prost, Maryland Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "And a traditional septic system is not designed to control for nitrogen. It's designed to control for bacteria... right there, for a water quality perspective, they are polluting more than if they were hooked up to a waste water treatment plant."

Undoing the old growth plan could mean 17,000 new homes would be added to Frederick County by 2030, which is 50 percent more than what the planning commission thought the county could absorb.

Janice Wiles, who moved to Frederick 12 years ago, says modern growth can't accommodate old paradigms.

"I think people are having a difficult time recognizing that the post-World War II, post-suburbia craze wasn't necessarily the best thing for our economic growth," Wiles says. "People, in general, they want a community, they like that feeling, and I think the whole suburbia has not really given that to people."

"Newcomers come in because they want their white picket fences," snapped one farmer at a hearing. "But once they get here, they don't want anyone else to have the same thing."

And many developers say the argument over "smart growth" miss the point in this case.

For them, "smart growth" has unnecessarily been pit against basic fairness, says Charles Seymour, president of Turning Point Real Estate.

"There was no balance to what was done," Seymour says. "There wasn't land protected in growth areas, there was land removed from growth areas that had been planned for the last 20 years. There was just no balance."

The most important outcome of the lawsuit between Friends of Frederick and the county may be simply the timing of when and where a county can redo a comprehensive growth plan. As Gugel, one of the county's planners put it, "If you get a new 20-year plan every four years, when a new board of commissioners comes in, that makes planning very difficult."


[Music: "The Suburbs" by Arcade Fire from The Suburbs]

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