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2014 Frederick County Election Update: Land Development & Growth are Hot Issues

After all these years one has to ask “What Difference does it Make?”

2014 Frederick County Election Update

Well, the stage is set and as the hype builds throughout the rest of this spring and on into the fall once again another county election will be focused on residential housing growth and land developers as the central campaign issue.

The Change and Charge of Home Rule

This time however, things will be different.  No longer will the electorate be casting their ballots for their favorite 5 county commissioner candidates.

This time each voter will only be casting 4 votes, which in the end will yield seven county council members and a County Executive.  More precisely ballots will provide for the selection of two At-Large Council members and one District Council member from the district within which a voter resides.

During the 2012 Maryland gubernatorial election Frederick County voters chose the change the form of government from that of Board of County Commissioner to a Charter Home Rule format which breaks the local government into two branches:  Executive — lead by a single elected County Executive, and a Legislative branch with the seven County Council members.

Just like in any primary election season the county is littered with red and blue candidates.  This time more than the voters have ever experienced: 42 vying for the eight seats of power.

The “lucky ones” chosen will find a new and different challenge awaiting them after they are sworn into office in December of this year — the job of creating policies and procedures to go along with the framework built by the Charter document.  As covered in a March 19, 2014 MacRo Report Blog post entitled “Building on the Foundation of Charter Home Rule.”  If not taken seriously by our new leaders in a very collaborative fashion, Frederick County’s new form of government could be destined to fall in to the bureaucratic highly partisan trap that Montgomery County fell into when it made the conversion decades ago.

Candidates who are elected on the single issue platforms such as Growth or No-Growth, Education funding and the like, may miss the boat entirely if they don’t place focus on the primary job of bringing order and ease of procedures how the council and county executive will take care of business.  It will be a gigantic task that voters need to consider as they enter the polls this summer and fall.

That said, my guess is that it will be difficult for our candidates and our local printed periodicals — namely the Frederick News Post — to avoid all the hoopla and bad blood that has already spilled in print, the web, the airways, etc., over the issue of residential housing growth and other actions of the last two boards of Frederick County Commissioners.

Clinton vs Bush – Frederick Style

I say the last two boards, because it is not just a coincidence that the current board President Blaine Young is one of three Republicans vying for the opportunity to challenge the sole Democratic hopeful Jan Gardner, who just so happened to be president of the previous Board of Frederick County Commissioners.

Their styles could not be more contrasting, but in many ways similar, depending who one speaks with.

It was just last month that Ms. Gardner and I exchanged “rhetoric” over one of my recent blog posts entitled “What is this thing they call a Comprehensive Land Use Plan?”  Over the years we have maintained a generally cordial relationship — disagreed on many things, but surprisingly worked together on others.  Lately, what I have found we disagree on are the facts of the not too distant past.  It seems she tends to remember her “accomplishments” as a county commissioner much differently than others do.  Her claims of collaboration with all twelve municipalities within the county during her last term eventually brought lawsuits against her BOCC from more than half of those jurisdictions.

On the other hand candidate Blaine Young has received much criticism during his BOCC presidential tenure for his full steam ahead (some say less than communicable) approach to creating public private partnerships, changing policies related to providing county funding to nonprofits, choosing to sell the county owned Montevue and Citizens assisted living facilities and on the matter of reversing the very strict measures taken by the Jan Gardner Administration that curbed county housing start rates levels of five decades earlier.

While a lot has happened in the last few years with housing development approvals throughout the county and within its municipalities, much of what has taken place has been has been to meet the 2030 goals mandated by the Maryland Department of Planning to create 36,000 new housing units in Frederick County.

Like it or not Young’s approach to getting things done fulfilled the campaign promises that got him and fellows commissioners Shreve, DeLauter and Smith elected in 2010.

The Gray Horse Candidate

Another candidate who has inserted himself into the June 24th Republican primary is long time commissioner David Gray.  He originally ran for office years ago as a Democrat, but after no success, he found that it was easier to get into office as a Republican.  Gray serves on the current Young board, but has been the most consistent nay-sayer of actions taken by his colleagues.

In an apparent collaboration with allies of former Democratic commissioners Jan Gardner and Kai Hagen, the word on the street is to get as many Democrats to switch their party affiliations in time for June primary to assist Gray to overthrown Young early on.

Clearly Gray, who won the right to be president of the last Board of County Commissioners in 2006, cannot be serious in his bid for County Executive, as he ceded that right to Gardner right away after he was sworn into office.

So can this white haired knight on his gray horse save Ms. Gardner from the likely Gardner vs. Young show down this fall?  I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Fighting with the Facts of Growth

Not only is the issue of growth a very hot topic as campaign season kicks into high gear, it is also (as it has always been) great fodder for fear mongering.

Consider a recent email I received from the Sugarloaf Conservancy, headed by Doug and Peggy Kaplan.  As Republicans they are urging their followers to vote for Jan Gardner this fall, because they:

… are greatly concerned about the uncontrolled development being approved by the current Board of County Commissioners. Unless Jan Gardner is elected County Executive, her likely opponent would surely continue the current policy of allowing major development throughout the county if elected.   We are greatly concerned this will affect our quality of life at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain.    

Now my siblings and I have lived at the western foot of Sugarloaf Mountain for 55 years on several hundred acres of farmland.  I have clocked enough hours of hiking the mountain over that time to walk from here to Portland, Oregon and back; and I am as much concerned about preserving the sanctity of the rural region around it as the next.  But to think that any group of elected officials will threaten the “quality of life at the foot of the mountain” is silly.

Once again if one were to really look at the rate of housing growth in all of Frederick County over just the last 35 years that my family and I have been here, the pace of growth has been extremely consistent.

With the exception of the last eight years, housing starts during that period averaged between 2,000 and 2,130 units per year.  That equates to an average annual population growth rate of between 2% and 3%.

Interestingly since 2006 the average rate dropped to well below half the number of starts as the county experienced in the previous 26 years.

Sure, some very large projects have been approved.  Many of these fall within the city limits of Frederick —  annexations which were opposed by the Gardner Board, but desired by the city.  The county recently approved its last project in Monrovia, which has not seen its last protest and lawsuit for months to come.

The Monrovia Towne Center once fully built out will bring approximately 1,250 units, which includes a large percentage of senior housing.  A project of this magnitude from plan approval to the last house being built will likely take seven to ten years to build out at a rate of 200 to 300 units per year once construction begins.  Using the county’s pre-recession housing start rates, the Towne Center will only make up 10% to 15% of our traditional growth rate.

Over this same period of time with developer contributions and other capital resources, adequate infrastructure will fall into place with guidelines and parameters established by a developers rights and responsibility contract made with the county.

Dusty Rood, President of the Land Use Council of the Frederick County Building Industry Association, recently stated in its spring 2014 newsletter:

The current development pipeline contains approximately 4,500 units that are ‘ready to go’, meaning the lots are recorded. However, a fair amount of these are legacy lots that have been recorded for many years and, for a variety of reasons (don’t perc, need infrastructure, owner is holding, etc.) haven’t moved and may never move. There are approximately 16,500 units that have APFO [Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance] approval, meaning they have passed the APFO test but may still require infrastructure and/or public facility improvements to proceed. In total, that’s a maximum of approximately 21,000 lots, which is short of the projected additional needed units [to fulfill the 2030 goals of the 36,000 mandated by the Maryland Department of Planning]

School overcrowding has always been wrench to throw in as a reason to resist growth.  To this Rood adds a very interesting statistic for consideration:

During [the last ten years while housing starts have averaged less than 1,000 units annually], the County’s school system has experienced enrollment growth at less than 0.5% per year over the last decade compared with annual enrollment of 3% – 5% 20 years ago, which combined with school construction has created a surplus of classroom capacity at all three levels system wide.

Is this really a surprise?  School populations tend to fluctuate as demographics and dynamics of other socioeconomic changes and technology impact society.

Election Year Fodder

As stated in my article on understanding the purpose of a comprehensive plan:

I often sit in public hearings … and hear local residents come out in protest of a site plan that has been proposed.  In many cases I feel bad for those speakers as some claim that they were not aware that a nearby property could be developed.

No one likes change, especially those who often move to the solitude of an outlying county.

I heard a gentleman speak at a hearing recently, telling the story of how he and his wife “escaped” from the concentrated growth of Prince Georges County many years ago to what they hoped would be a quiet spot in Adamstown.  Now years later, growth is knocking on their door once again … from others (no doubt) who wish to make their “escape” as well.

Growth happens, and looking back over the last several decades, I’ve heard the same complaints and fear mongering tactics every election.  And as growth in Frederick County continues to click along at a pretty steady pace of 2.5% per year, candidates will once again promise to stop the developers in their tracks hoping that such a phrase will win them votes.

It does make wonderful election fodder and can often motivate enough passion to get people to the polls.

As much as many of us, who served on the Board that crafted the new Charter Home Rule documents between 2010 and 2012, would like the center of this year’s county election to center on electing a team of candidates that will make their priority the completion of home rule policies and procedures, the matter of growth will likely overshadow everything else … as usual.

But in the end has all this rancor over growth election after election really made a difference?

Frederick County, Maryland, is a wonderful place to live.  It is a community steeped in a strong tradition of giving back to better itself.  As our numbers have grown steadily over the years and I meet our new settlers, I hear the steady theme of how welcoming our culture is to all you come here.

While change inevitably happens, one thing I know will not change is the open arms of this terrific county I call home.


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The author: Rocky Mackintosh, President, MacRo, Ltd., a Land and Commercial Real Estate firm based in Frederick, Maryland. He has been an active member of the Frederick, Maryland community for over four decades.  He has served as chairman of the board of Frederick Memorial Hospital and as a member of the Frederick County Charter Board from 2010 to 2012, to name a few.  

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