It was late on Saturday afternoon, the sun was sinking, and the sightseers who had taken a drive to the New Carrollton Metro station were finding something very different from the crowds and confusion that will be there next week.
The tall, hulking terminal was silent and the vast parking lot was deserted, except for a gleaming white Cadillac with red METRO license plates, and James W. Rogers, who was sitting inside.
Spotting the tags, some of the visitors stopped to ask about the station, and Rogers, the self-described "mediator, coordinator, developer and agitator" for both the station and the 80-acre "golden triangle" of commercial development beside it, leaned out his window and spoke his mind.
"You should go down to the Landover station," he told one prospective commuter. "It's really nice. This one - is going to be a mess."
Rogers' disgust at the New Carrollton station he has fought to bring to Prince George's County was somewhat shocking, but it represented what, in many ways has happened in New Carrollton and the nearby Ardmore-Ardwick industrial area as the opening of Metro's orange line has approached.
The station will be eagerly welcomed by most area residents as a transportation necessity and as the catalyst of $38 million commercial project that is the pride of Prince George's County "new quality" boosters. Nevertheless, it has also, in recent months, become the center of a bitter struggle among developers, politicians and local home owners.
The issue is whether the small, middle-class city of New Carrollton should annex the station, the triangular-shaped Metro East project across the street, and the neighborhoods of West Lanham and West Lanham Hills. These areas are close to the station and are most likely to be affected adversely by parking or traffic problems.
From the point of view of some citizens, the officials of New Carrollton, the New Carrollton mayor, Jordan Harding, the proposed annexation is the only way to protect a town of 15,000 from congestion and overdevelopment brought to the area first by the Beltway, and now, by Metro.
For the developers of Metro East, another group fo home owners, and broker-gadfly Rogers, the controversy boils down to a blatant attempt by a group of politicians to collect hundreds on thousands of dollars in taxes from businessmen and deluded home owners, without providing any services in return.
The rhetoric on both sides is frequently shouted now, and the annexation may be the subject of three referendums and as many lawsuits before it is decided. Meanwhile, ironically, all participants hearily agree on one point: Metro is the best thing to happen to New Carrollton and the surrounding area in a long, long time.
The station, nestled inside the curve formed by the intersection of Rte. 50 and the Beltway, is seen by developers and home owners alike as the solution to a transportation bind that has ensnarled the area's development for years.
The residents of New Carrollton and West Lanham Hills who typically make $18,000-$20,000 annually and own $40,000-$50,000 homes, have felt hemmed in by the growing congestion and development of Rtes. 45 and 50. Rte. 450 alone now carries 43,000 cars a day between Riverdale Road and the Beltway, and has sprouted so many gas stations, small shopping centers, and fast food outlets that it has been nicknamed "gasoline alley."
Meanwhile, Metro has triggered business development on the adjacent triangle formed by Rtes. 50, 495, and the railroad tracks, long considered a prime site for industry.
Across the Metro parking lot from this sudden mass of development is New Carrollton. And many New Carollton residents believe that although Metro and Metro East (the "golden triangle" industrial development) can only be good for the county, nothing but close monitoring by the city will insure that they are good for their immediate residential neighbors.
Closest to the Metro station are the 1,200 residents of West Lanham Hills and West Lanham, a one-street development inside West Lanham Hills. Some residents of the community, which is both older and poorer than neighboring New Carrollton, are worried that the towns could be trampled by the commuters and additional development Metro and Metro East will bring.
They agree with New Carrollton Mayor Harding, who says that the communities should be annexed to New Carrollton because "they need more clout. They've been the forgotten people and they need someone to stand up and fight for them."
If New Carrollton is to fight for itself and West Lanham Hills, the supporters of annexation assert, Metro East and Metro also must be annexed. Otherwise, Harding and his supporters say, the town will only be able to watch helplessly as more and more congestion and gas-station development seeps into the area.
"If somebody is going to build all that stuff and think they are not going to have an effect on the city, they're crazy," Harding said. "We have seen this whole area stifle us; every time you turn around there's another gas station on 450. I'm going to fight to keep this sort of thing from happening to our city and our people."
What Harding and other proponents of annexation are slower to mention - and what opponents have seized upon - is the fact that New Carrollton stands to collect a projected $200.000 a year in additional tax revenues, while providing few, if any, services to Metro East.
New Carrollton officials are estimating that they will spend $54,000 a year on services to the 400 total acres proposed for annexation, but since the town has no regular police force and trash pickups in commercial developments are handled by the businesses, Harding concedes that possible New Carrollton services to Metro East are "up in the air."
To Ellis, Rogers, and the managers of the firms building in Metro East, what Harding is admitting is that the commercial development is going to be slapped with another layer of taxes, with little reason or benefit.
Although county officials say New Carrollton's tax rate, which is the lowest of any municipality in the county at 36 cents for each $100 of assessed value, will only have a "nuisance effect" on development in the triangle, developer Ellis and broker Rogers hint darkly of dire consequences.
"We got caught blind by this," says Ellis. "Our clients now have to consider what effect this might have. It could drive development away and it could make some firms reconsider their contracts to build."
Rogers, who now spends much of his time preparing material on the annexation proposal and distributing it on fliers and releases to residents, newspapers and politicians, is more vehement.
"The whole thing has been a campaign of deception, he said. "New Carollton tells different scare stories to different people - and none of them mean anything. It's all an ego trip for certain people over there."
The arguments of New Carrollton's council and mayor have, indeed, been clouded by allegations that the annexation was planned in secret, in violation of state sunshine laws, and that the public was - and has not been - adequately informed about its possible effects. Those charges are now being tested in court in the first of what may be several suits against the annexation is an irresponsible land grab by a frustrated politician," said State Sen. Thomas O'Reilly of New Carrollton, who insists he is neutral on the issue. "What is needed is an open forum where all the points of view can be openly expressed."
All points of view on the annexation probably will saturate New Carrollton and West Lanham Hills during the next two weeks. Aggressive citizens' drives have formed on both sides of the issue, and Harding and Rogers are preparing for major campaigns.
The annexation will be tested in two referendums early next month - one in New Carrollton and one in West Lanham Hills - before the town council votese on it. If either referendum swings against the move, the council will not annex the land.
Even if the referendums approve annexation, there is the possibility of a third referendum after the council's vote, under state law. And then there are the lawsuits.