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  • Newcomers and longtime residents differ on development.
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  • By Lyndsey Layton and Claudia Deane
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, March 22, 1998; Page B01

    From the discount superstores of Charles County to the tobacco fields of Calvert County and sailing inlets of St. Mary's County, the people of Southern Maryland have one unifying worry: runaway growth.

    According to a new Washington Post poll, two-thirds of the adults in this rural region 20 miles south of Washington say the place where they live is growing too fast. Frustration with crowded roads is mounting, and 80 percent say they want mass transit such as buses or trains. And nearly two-thirds of those polled want strict new limits on construction of town houses, shopping centers and waterfront development.

    "All of a sudden, everyone in this county seems to want to build a million houses," said Peggy Owens, 39, an unemployed native of St. Mary's. "The good thing about living here was, it was peaceful, quiet. You didn't have to worry about congestion and crime. Now, it's turning into a city, instead of country."

    Peggy Owens and husband, Leroy
    Peggy Owens of Ridge in St. Mary's, with her husband, Leroy, says recent growth has brought on a house- building frenzy near their mobile home. (By Mary Gail/The Washington Post)
    Growth in Southern Maryland has been fueled by the expansion of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in St. Mary's and population shifts from Washington and its contiguous suburbs to "exurbs" with more open space and cheaper land.

    "I lived in Prince George's County, and it started to build up, and then I moved to Charles, and it started to build up, and then I moved to St. Mary's County," said Dawn Potter, a 29-year-old homemaker bothered by growth.

    U.S. Census figures released last week reveal an explosion of growth in the outer suburbs surrounding Washington. Since 1990, population in Calvert County has soared 35.1 percent, making it Maryland's fastest-growing county. During the same period, Charles County grew 13.8 percent, and St. Mary's population jumped 12.8 percent.

    The Washington Post poll, based on random telephone interviews with 1,205 adults March 4 to 8, found that Southern Marylanders differ about whether they generally view growth as positive or negative. But most agree that they want stricter controls on all future development except single-family homes.

    Despite protests of "we don't want to be another Waldorf" – the home of the sprawling St. Charles Towne Center mall – many respondents said the development there has been good for the region.

    Attitudes about growth and development seem to be shaped by longevity in the region: Newcomers are more accepting of growth than are longtime residents.

    Herman Stephens, a 61-year-old limousine driver, said that even though Charles County is growing, it still offers a better quality of life than Prince George's, where he lived for 26 years before moving to Charles in 1993. "I came down [to Charles], and I said, 'This place is nice.' The water, the golfing, tennis. It is just a beautiful little area that one would like to retire [in]," he said.

    But longtime residents who knew the region before it began to grow are more disturbed. They said they are bothered by the big issues – traffic, loss of farms and fields to housing, crowded schools. But they also are disturbed by smaller changes that tear at the fabric of country life: having to walk through a metal detector at the county courthouse or not recognizing faces in church on Sunday.

    "When I first moved into where I'm living now . . . you just didn't close your doors at night. In the summer, you left them open. You didn't lock the door," said Marie Bowie, 67, who moved to Charles County more than 50 years ago. "And now I have to lock the door during the day when I'm at home."

    In Calvert and St. Mary's counties, at least two-thirds of the longer-term residents said their county is growing too fast, compared with four in 10 newcomers. In Charles, the most developed of the three counties, 75 percent of the longer-term residents said the growth is too fast, compared with 60 percent of the newcomers. Longtime residents of Calvert and Charles counties also were more likely to be pessimistic about what the next decade holds, compared with new residents.

    Among the newcomers bothered by growth, several said it reminds them of what they've tried to escape.

    "I'm not happy with it," said Mary Grogan, a 39-year-old homemaker who moved to Calvert County from Baltimore County two years ago. "I moved down here to get away from all that – the traffic, the congestion, the overpopulation."

    Large numbers of both old-timers and newcomers want government to put the brakes on high-speed growth. And they gave local officials mixed reviews on their efforts to control growth so far.

    "They're just now beginning to decide what to do about the overcrowding in the schools, the roads," said Potter, who lives in Mechanicsville in St. Mary's. "They waited too long. They knew this problem was coming with all these people coming down here, and they did not plan for it."

    Several residents polled say they are so upset by growth, they're thinking of packing up.

    "We've talked about moving," said Patricia Graves, 35, a mother of three and a native of Charles County. "We don't want to move, but if it gets worse, we will."

    Despite the fact that Southern Maryland is within commuting distance of Washington and many residents have social or professional ties to the city, many respondents do not like the nation's capital.

    Sixty percent of those polled said they don't consider themselves part of the Washington metropolitan area, and 80 percent have an unfavorable impression of the city as a place to live. Sixty-six percent of those polled said they rarely or never go to the District for reasons other than work.

    "I wouldn't live there because I think it's gone so downhill," said Potter, whose attitude is underlined by the current census figures that show the District has lost 13 percent of its population since 1990. "It's sad to look at it and think that's where everything is, and you can't go down there and feel safe. . . . Like going on a field trip with my children, you're sitting on the Mall eating lunch and the people who come by – it's scary."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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