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August 16, 2006

Growth and The County Commissioners

George Wenschhof

The issues surrounding growth in Frederick County have been front and center for many, many years and always become paramount at election time. This year's election is no different.

I was raised in Frederick and have seen the many changes that have occurred since I started first grade at Parkway Elementary School in 1959. Due to overcrowding in the school system, I was taught in a split classroom with first and second graders. They kept us together the next year as second and third graders. We also had the same teacher both years. To save you from doing the math, I am now 53.

Obviously, many changes have indeed occurred since then, not the least of which being my hair turning silver and white and my body carrying extra pounds on its frame. As a child all the main stores were downtown where my Mom would take the kids on the annual shopping trip for our school clothes.

I can remember my Dad, who was a pharmacist, being transferred from downtown's Peoples Drug Store to the 7th Street Shopping Center store when it opened in 1957.

How excited we were when the first burger chain came to Frederick about the time I was in the fourth or fifth grade. It was called Red Top and was located on 7th street across from Frederick Memorial Hospital. McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and a mall on Route 40 would follow.

More recently, it has been a Wal-Mart, Lowe's, Staples, or a new cinemas theater complex that has come; and yes, the people are shopping there as frequently as they did when the Red Top first came to town.

I point out some of my own history here for it seems that as more people moved here and new subdivisions were built the demand for more variety in stores increased and as the variety of stores increased so did the people and the new subdivisions.

Anyway, it is my belief that growth is going to occur and that we should work together to manage that growth as effectively as we can to avoid the portable classrooms and traffic gridlock we experience today.

Over the years political wanabees and elected officials have used terms like "managed growth" and "controlled growth." Now I am hearing the term "sustainable growth." The composition of the Board of County Commissioners has changed several times over the last four elections with the outcome arguably being "for" or "against" growth. Votes made by incumbents on zoning cases or subdivisions have been scrutinized and either praised or criticized by those who had opposing views.

To help mitigate the related costs of development the county commissioners created impact fees and passed an adequate public facilities ordinance (APFO) to be used when staff is reviewing development projects for approval. The results of these actions have been mixed.

This has led to the suggestion for a new impact tax on new homes, proposed by Commissioner Jan Gardner; and last year, in the City of Frederick elections, Ken Berlin, a candidate for alderman, brought up the idea of a land value tax. Both of these suggestions should be examined seriously.

Then there is the argument that when the cost of building homes becomes too expensive here in Frederick County, either the developer or the new family will just by-pass us and head to Washington County and Pennsylvania, and no fees will be collected.

Where does this back and forth argument for and against growth leave the residents of Frederick County? The fact is that Frederick County is ideally located near the major cities of Washington and Baltimore with the majority of its land being zoned for agriculture or conservation purposes. We also have a nice quality of life and will continue to be a place where people will want to raise their families.

It is important, however, that our infrastructure keep pace with our future development. The main problem today is not just planning effectively for future growth, but planning on how we are going to catch up with infrastructure deficiencies.

Another idea to help in this task would be the increase of the transfer tax on the sale of property with the money going to the county or the incorporated municipality where the home was sold and earmarked for local needs. Although this looks like an across-the-board method that would help, this idea has been met with resistance from the real estate community.

We who live in Frederick County are all vested in our community and we want it to be the best that it can be. I hope that in this election cycle we will stay away from the antagonistic approach of "Us" versus "Them," or the labeling of politicians as pro-growth or anti-growth.

In order to build and renovate our schools, construct new state and federal roads and interchanges, we also need to elect state and federal representatives who will work effectively on our behalf.

Let's work on bringing all the people - businesses, community leaders and elected officials - together to develop solutions to our problems. We have seen the result of past elections where either the "pro-growth" or the "anti-growth" side won a majority on the board.

Then, because of the perceived antagonistic approach that was taken by some of those in power, the next four years resulted in the losing side battling every issue that came before the board. Subsequently, the composition of the board changed the following election.

The residents of Frederick County deserve better than this political gridlock and polarization. It is time to end this ineffective back and forth approach now. We should elect county commissioners who pledge to work together with all levels of government and all segments of our community who believe in building Frederick County together.

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