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April 27, 2007

George Proved Right: Again!

Roy Meachum

In recent years nobody has come up with a more apt phrase about local development than George Delaplaine. The former News-Post publisher described the attempt by county newcomers to shut everybody else out as "Pulling up the moat," as I have written before.

My friend and former "boss" made the observation over 20 years back; it's true now to a greater degree than then.

A coterie of no-neck types wants no-growth in the county. By preference they would set up walls topped by barbed wire and machine guns, presumably, at the line they see divides Frederick from the adjoining metro areas.

It doesn't work that way, folks. The feds decided long ago, before most of the newcomers settled here, that we are part of the defined Washington market. (Which has much to do with why those noisy people are living here.)

Some 24 years ago when I signed papers to escape Bethesda's congestion, this city and county were approximately half their present size.

As the rest of the world knows well: we live in a time of mass migrations. Families are not only moving from country to country, but within national borders. Think of the last time you met anyone not born in Frederick. Try Maryland and the negative odds improve but remain high.

As I have advertised in columns, my native turf is Louisiana. But folks who've wanted, for years, to send me back fall flat on their faces: There is no "back" back there. I've lived in Maryland longer than my feet beat the mud on New Orleans' levees. But this is no claim to be a "typical" Frederick newcomer.

My three city mortgages have been on downtown properties, two on North Market Street, where Pushkin and I now sleep at night. The Historic District was my choice, first in 1983. My "newest" residence was built in the 1880s.

Sliding into the third decade as a Frederick taxpayer, I can testify all those Johnny-and-Jane-come-laters have not made life easier; movement has become increasingly encumbered.

Under present circumstances, I studiously avoid South Market Street, when I can, particularly in the afternoon, after three. The new constricting construction stops at the city-line, shortly after passing Costco. I understand.

What politician possessed of all faculties would propose bulldozing the handsome federalist houses that stand in the way?

Whichever way you go, getting from here to there can be a royal pain in the neck, as everyone knows. It was not that way 24 years ago.

Since my children and their children are not county residents, I have not suffered the results of the rush to local classrooms. On the other hand, most of my taxes went to pay teachers and maintain schools. No regrets, on my part.

As many newcomers apparently do not understand, growth provides jobs, which together with fees, underwrite county education. I didn't "get" that simple formula when I moved up here.

But then, it was the era when interest rates were out of sight. The G.I. bill had been extended to allow vets, despite their having bought homes earlier, to get another lower interest mortgage; that's how I wound up here.

Construction was virtually non-existent. Before the no-growth crowd's cheers rock heaven, they should also know there were no jobs close by. This was truly a bedroom community. Entire shopping malls had yet to be built. The stores here were inevitably local or at best regional. Sears and Penney's were notable exceptions. And that was fine with me.

A column I wrote proposed specifically a Chinese wall should be erected on 270, at the exit for Hyattstown. In other words, I offered the solution today's recent arrivals seemed to want. With one notable exception: I was offended at new development residents' complaints about the smells from nearby farms. After all, the pigs had been here first.

In other words, I was bopping along feeling good about my objection to tracts of new houses; my smugness came, in part, because living in the Historic District generally exempted me from the development actually taking place.

George Delaplaine, not for the first or last time, opened my eyes. He was the publisher and my "boss," so to speak, although I was never on a News-Post payroll. According to the Internal Revenue Service, I was a contractor, called in my business "free lance." The status allowed independence in the column's opinions.

While we talked now and again, I enjoyed the ritual of an annual lunch with George at a place he chose, usually with the idea of telling me something I didn't know about the community. He could come up with doozies.

One sunny, early spring day, we got together at the defunct Bull on Market Restaurant, which featured a very fine chef. It was several years into the column running in the local paper, and well after his injunction on "pulling up the moat."

When we finished, he offered to let me see "something" I may not have seen. There was no way I would decline another revelation from the gentle man with the sly wit. We piled into his car.

We chatted along while rolling through south Frederick and into the other side of I-270. Conversation stopped dead when I saw what he wanted to show me.

While I had been prattling along in print about stopping development, virtually a new city had been springing up. On Frederick's south side, but well within the county, what seemed to be miles and miles of townhouses covered every acre in sight. I was stunned.

My friend - and publisher - took some delight in my reaction. He broadly grinned and said little, letting the rolling former meadows make his point. I was humbled by my lack of understanding.

In print I had to pretend to be an expert, in order to express an opinion. But that early afternoon I confronted my great ignorance on a subject that I had treated, at best, in a cavalier fashion. I should have simply known better.

Before Bethesda, I had lived in Virginia's Loudoun County where the vain attempt to hold back the inevitable sprang a leak that turned into a veritable flood, spouting houses by the hundreds and stores and stores and stores.

Trusting my fading powers of recollection, this story has never been published before, although my friends have heard how and why I switched and became allied with those who favor what no man can change.

Development will take place no matter what we do. The trick to handling expansion is "how" we handle it.

New Market voters said they don't want a sizeable project approved by former commissioners. That represents existential democracy. The people overruled officials. Bravo.

But in the next stage of that continuing saga, they should exercise their newly found strength with great care. Total prohibition did not work in the national "Noble Experiment." It never has.

Equally, development's other big story this week is bound to come a cropper: new legal restrictions on lobbyists. Ethically challenged men and women will simply find new ways to exercise undue influence, when willing politicians go along.

Appointed and elected officials - such as the planning chairman and commissioners' president quoted in this week's story - must learn to speak out each time they suspect manipulation of the process.

As Edmund Burke warned, good men (and women) permit the triumph of evil when they do nothing, which includes simply keeping their mouths shut.

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