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January 15, 2008

Elitist Commissioners

Roy Meachum

John "Lennie" Thompson and the commissioners he continues to dominate see Frederick's development strictly in terms of profit hungry and all-powerful builders.

They adamantly refuse to consider the workers affected by their arbitrary decisions about the construction industry. Meanwhile, county unemployment in the industry pushes higher every day because of the local echo of the national economic crisis. An example lies not far from my desk. The arrival of good weather last year brought an explosion of action in the next block, up Maxwell Avenue. After years of back-and-forth technicalities, the way laid clear to start what could still be a dynamo for downtown's north side. But no time soon.

The lack of buildings south of Carroll Creek had already permitted a flowering of apartments and houses; they dramatically shifted the historic district's energy away from its traditional base, my neighborhood.

The Maxwell Avenue project, fronted on East Fifth Street, already stirred things up before the bulldozers moved in. Old houses were being restored to their dignity; the urban decay vanishing.

The increased value for real estate affects me only in terms of taxes; I have no intention of selling. Pushkin's and my affection for our dwelling started in the 18th century has nothing to do with money. And on our death, an attorney has drawn up documents seeking to ensure our deaths will not let strangers in.

That must be said.

My concern here is what happened to those crews? With on-the-market properties running more than double their numbers a few years ago, how do those men and women feed their families? In the present situation, the last thing in the world they need is government choking off future jobs.

Commissioners' President Jan Gardner disagrees. With apparent good faith, she asserts the slow-down justifies the proposed two-year moratorium; she believes the lack of new construction will enable her board to survey and recommend suitable controls on future growth.

That might make eminently good sense in the lofty precincts of Winchester Hall, but it stinks in hundreds of homes where the mortgages are paid with money earned by sweaty brows and bodies. And let's not forget employees of businesses reliant for their very life on the construction industry!

They're already hurting from new homes sales' plummeting. Again my neighborhood: Where are the men and women staying busy, earning paychecks, now that they're no longer building houses in the next block?

The commissioners share no blame for what happened to their jobs, but the proposed moratorium could easily foster the upsurge in local foreclosures. Mere plans and vague hopes for the future do not pay mortgages.

When I first started writing the News-Post columns 23 years ago, skilled construction people could haul their tools into adjacent states or counties. Montgomery provided lots of jobs that don't exist now, primarily because of the economic real estate slow-down.

The same slow-down shuts off another option: Selling their Frederick homes and moving to some place cheaper. When Pushkin takes me out for our daily walks, I tend to get depressed by the “For Sale” signs that have been up for months.

At last Friday's Annapolis delegation meeting, Galen Clagett proposed a measure that enables property owners, through their lawyers, to seek exceptions to the total ban.

The delegate explained his hurry-up motion because he didn't want the commissioners to haul out their political bats before his colleagues could reach a decision on their own.

Well, as we read in Sunday's daily newspaper, Mr. Clagett failed. He suffered, not for the first time, a verbal mauling by Mr. Thompson.

Mrs. Gardner said the commissioners' plan was much more efficient. She could be right. Mussolini was praised for making his country's railroads run on time. Both the Italian dictator and his German ally operated with no need to take into consideration public feelings.

Borrowing Pontius Pilate's bowl, the commissioners called for hearings next month by the county planning board and themselves.

From where I sit, the county mother and fathers are seeking a semblance of community approval. I put it that way because nothing on the record suggests they will listen to anyone else. "Lennie" rules!

On the side of the hundreds of Frederick workers affected by the proposed moratorium, Republican State Sen. David Brinkley said he plans to introduce a version of Democratic Delegate Clagett's proposal in Maryland's upper chamber.

This latest megillah causes me again to try to guess what part of the local population the commissioners seek to please. I know it's neither workers nor business people. Their moves have short-changed farmers and other property owners who have been around for a while.

Since no one on the county board has attempted to bring forth a measure that would build new roads, we can assume traffic is not really their major concern.

What remains are the people who exemplify my oldest Frederick friend's dictum about "pulling up the moat" behind them. They are refugees from the metropolitan area who are afraid others will trample upon the paradise they found here.

In a single word: Newcomers.

Along with furniture, the recent arrivals brought in their baggage the notion they are the elite, and anyone with a contrary view dumb, nearsighted and simply not to be tolerated. They alone know what's best for Frederick and the rest of us yokels must bow down to their rule.

Their ideal politician comes to life in John "Lennie" Thompson. Knowing their phobia about growth, Mr. Thompson maneuvers to block new schools, roads and water supply, lest they encourage developers.

He – and they – don’t give a fig about how the rest of us might react to heavy traffic, lopsided classes and the continuing threat of drought. All together, they mean to "pull up the moat."

Elitists are like that.

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