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October 6, 2006

Damn the Developers!

Roy Meachum

While Pushkin was promenading me a recent morning, we were assailed by a defeated political candidate. It was the strangest encounter I've had in 22 years covering county politics.

It would be understatement to say Harold Domer was wrought up; he was furious, spitting words out in machine-gun fashion. In mid-conversation, he hoisted his shoulders square and proclaimed that columns about "my wife" were "unconscionable." In fact, she had been the subject of some legal speculation and discussion before the News-Post published my opinions.

Was ex-police lieutenant Barbara Domer a public figure? Some editors said not. The lawyers intervened. They said she remained one from her highly controversial era on the department. She became one as the wife of a candidate. And her rabble-rousing behavior during the campaign - demanding his opponents' signs be replaced by his - cinched the argument. In the event, Mrs. Domer has never been the demure, apron-ed Hausfrau who needed protection from the nasty journalist.

During my 22 years professionally observing and commenting on events and people for the Frederick media, I have taken particular pride in never personally attacking anyone. Some politicians have felt very much otherwise, in the manner of Mr. Domer; but I have carefully stayed on the public side. For example, anti-development politician David Gray's foray into development was a proper subject; another candidate's drinking problem was not. (That has nothing to do with my highly publicized conviction for Drinking While Intoxicated; I was.)

Not every candidate's spouse should be considered a public figure, at least in my book. But at the moment a family member makes official the desire to exercise public power, every member of the family comes under public scrutiny. That's a given of American politics.

On the other hand, Commissioner John "Lennie" Thompson's wife has skyrocketed by her own linguistic acrobatics to a stellar place on the local scene: her colorful diatribes have been, metaphorically at least, shouted from the roof-tops. By contrast, Mrs. John Lovell has no identity in my mind, except she is married to the commissioner. Suzy Thompson is obviously a public figure; Johanna Lovell, not. (By the way, I had to make a call to learn Mrs. Lovell's first name.)

We are in the middle of the nastiest election season I've witnessed here: Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's ill-founded character assassinations, in my Washington youth, were the worst of my life. Fortunately, the meanest of the local bad mouths got their comeuppance in the primary.

Since moving to Frederick, at least, I had not witnessed the heat of the invectives aimed at Mike Cady and Mr. Lovell. Unfortunately for the naysayers, they wound up one-two on the Republicans-for-commissioners list. Unfazed, their enemies promise both gentlemen will be history after the November 7 general elections. And they might. I've heard speculation that independents will join "good" Democrats in sweeping them out of office. Of course, the same voices were predicting they would be ground into dust in September.

During the past four years, there have been points of difference between Commissioners Lovell and Cady and me; Mr. Cady, in particular. The first to come to mind? His support of the Health Department's ill-fated attempt to sweep goodies out of downtown stores on First Saturdays. Our conversations on the subject were terse and highly controlled; he squared his jaw a lot. In the event, nothing happened. Merchants cited for alleged violations were never brought to court. Incidentally, no one reported sick or dead from the free candy and such.

The nosiest portion of the electorate holds Mr. Cady and Mr. Lovell personally responsible for the county's growth. Projects approved years before they ascended to high office are "all their fault." When some of the developments now underway were first on the drawing boards, Mike Cady was growing up in Prince George's County and John Lovell was hanging around Frederick County schools. In fact, if Winchester Hall were to stop approving anything new, projects could still go up, according to records, well past 2025.

Contrary to published opinions, long time residents do not lead the charge to cut and curtail building. Generally speaking, the leaders are newcomers. Folks, who liking what we've got, buy in and want to keep everybody else out. Life simply doesn't work that way.

That reality arrived on my doorstep during several years when I thought progress could be stopped.

In any event, all my ranting and raving, seeking to wound developments and castigate the people behind them came to zilch. Similarly, voters decide at every election to throw out "the bums" or some similar phrase to describe the "ins." Their position on growth matters not. Every four years it happens. In the end, the upheavals amount, again, to nada. The developing goes on. The anti-growth crowd has become a growth industry, preferring now the label "slow growth." They've failed to name anyone who is "fast" growth; they don't exist, especially in a slowed down economy. Such hypocrisy really turns me off.

The difference now between the diametrically opposed factions, as said at the beginning, derives chiefly from the tone; yesterday's naysayers became today's revolutionaries who wander about in a blind rage clutching to anyone who promises relief, however false the promise. And that means, first of all, Ms. Thompson's husband.

Commissioner Thompson has built a political career on pandering to the crowd that wants Frederick returned to bucolic bliss; their paradise didn't really exist in 1970 when the population was literally half the present size. For the record, county population growth has exceeded 30 percent in every census since 1980. This fuels cries against anything that smacks of growth. Nothing explains the bitterness that infests the crowd that wants Frederick as it has only existed in their minds. Ironically, virtually all of that crowd lives in new projects. In essence their money has fueled the development they would like now to tear down. Not their homes, of course.

When this is pointed out, I am told it's easy for me because I live in the center of the historic downtown. That's true. But everyone moving here has free choice. I could have as easily chosen Spring Ridge; most of the other projects didn't exist in 1983.

In choosing housing away from the city's center, families sought to avoid aging plumbing, archaic electrical systems and the lack of parking. They became instead the very things they now want to keep away - people who live on former farms. Their traffic problem is expanding; their water can come a cropper; and their schools seemingly bulging the walls.

For these specific problems, developers are not directly responsible. The blame rests on politicians, especially Lennie Thompson. He has never met a proposition for better roads, better schools and better water that he likes, as my recent column in substantiated.

Still it's much easier to incite the crowd to "shoot" developers. Demagogues do not get things done; they only want points so they can fulminate.

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