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Growth A Key Issue In Frederick's First County Executive Race

Christopher Connelly/WYPR

Two years ago, Frederick County voted to move to a county executive system. The move reflected the county’s growing population and complexity. On Tuesday, voters will decide who will run that new county government. Exactly how Frederick will continue to grow has become a major issue in the campaign.

Driving down Route 75 in southeastern Frederick, you get a sense of the rural nature of many parts of this county. Farm fields and country homes dot the two-lane country road. But Steve McKay says it’s the epicenter for bad growth policies enacted by the Republican-dominated board of county commissioners.

“Picture the 1,250 homes that’ll be on the left, and the 1,100 homes through all that farmland that’ll be on the right, and you probably think that they have plans for improving this road. You’d be wrong,” McKay said.

McKay heads a community group fighting two huge developments that will add thousands of new residents. This conservative independent says he’s voting for a Democrat because the current commissioners approved these projects. McKay says the deals will make the roads congested and unsafe, leave schools overcrowded and stick residents with the bill.

“It just seems like the county is bowing to the developer’s profit margin without actually thinking about how this area should be developed,” McKay said.

But Blaine Young, the commission president who’s running for county executive, sees it differently. At a debate at Frederick Community College, the Republican said his development vision can spur economic growth without changing the rural nature of Frederick.

“We do not want to be Montgomery County, we do not want the policies of Martin O’Malley and smart growth where people are living on top of each other,” Young told the crowd. “People like single family homes on one or two acres. But at the same time we don’t want to be Alleghany County where growth is at a standstill, people graduate from high school and leave.”

Young’s opponent Jan Gardner was the board president that preceded him. She’s fighting an uphill battle in this conservative county, and needs to pull in independents and even Republicans to beat Young, who has raised five times as much money as she has, including sizable contributions from developers.

Both say they’re the true fiscal conservative in the race. But Gardner said Young’s been irresponsible.

“We should make sure that the pace of development and growth doesn’t outpace our ability to provide schools and roads,” Gardner said. “And that’s exactly the plan Commissioner has put in place.”

Taxes, budgets and governance have been major issues in this race. So too, education. But development and growth in the county has emerged as perhaps the singular issue here that connects the county’s growing population and concerns about its changing nature.

Mike Sponseller* is a vice president at the Hogan Companies, a real estate development firm headed by Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan, who lives in southeast Frederick County where so much development is happening. Sponseller says critics are overselling how soon the projects will impact residents for political gain.

“It doesn’t do much good to get excited about it because it takes so long for it to happen” Sponseller said.

Sponseller is no fan of the planned projects, but he says he trusts Young to manage growth better than Gardner. And he says complaints about congestion the new projects might generate should be directed to Democrats in Annapolis who haven’t funded new roads projects.

“The Democrats told us we were going to get relief with the gas tax,” Sponseller said. “Well we got the gas tax but we’re not getting any relief.”

With the hard-fought race still at a statistical dead heat by all accounts, it’s up to voters to decide whether to keep going down the same path, or pick an old leader to chart a new way forward.

*This story has been corrected to include Mike Sponseller's correct title.

Christopher Connelly is a political reporter for WYPR, covering the day-to-day movement and machinations in Annapolis. He comes to WYPR from NPR, where he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow, produced for weekend All Things Considered and worked as a rundown editor for All Things Considered. Chris has a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. He’s reported for KALW (San Francisco), KUSP (Santa Cruz, Calif.) and KJZZ (Phoenix), and worked at StoryCorps in Brooklyn, N.Y. He’s filed stories on a range of topics, from a shortage of dog blood in canine blood banks to heroin addicts in Tanzania. He got his start in public radio at WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, when he was a student at Antioch College.