The paradox of upper Montgomery County's development can be seen along its narrow, winding two-lane roads, such as Middlebrook and Germantown roads.
Starting at that intersection, at the Water's Landing housing development, row after row of tightly packed town houses are near completion. Thick, black sewer piping snakes for yards along the same path as the town house frames, waiting to be placed underground to serve the hundreds of middle-class residents who will turn this once remote, rural area into a bustling subdivision.
Many of the new upcounty families will commute to jobs in Washington and the lower part of the county. They will pour out of their subdivision onto Middlebrook Road, and when they reach the stop sign at Rte. 118, they will wait as long as a half-hour for a break in the traffic. Residents have been promised a traffic light at that intersection for a year.
It's such upcounty problems of roads, traffic and development that have become election-year issues for candidates in the 15th legislative district.
The area's development has gone forth at a breakneck speed -- town houses followed by a shopping center followed by more town houses -- far outstripping the county and state's abilities to build roads. The county has a law prohibiting development over a certain level unless the roads are adequate to handle the traffic, but many Germantown developments were approved before the law took effect.
Upcounty residents say what they perceive as a lack of official urgency to end their daily fights with traffic is an example of how they are taken for granted in a county psychologically centered further south, in Silver Spring, Chevy Chase and Bethesda -- the area also known as "downcounty."
"They think we're all farms and cows. That's because we say 'moo' before the election and 'moo' after the election," said Dorothy Parise, a registered nurse and president of the Germantown Parent-Teachers Association. "We have no say politically because majority rules."
The upcounty -- geographically, that half chunk of the county north of Rockville -- is actually two areas, each with a distinct set of residents and problems. First, there is the Gaithersburg-Montgomery Village-Germantown area, the front line of the urban sprawl, where new, low-cost town houses are attracting a generation of new suburbanites who are fleeing the high housing costs of the suburbs closer to the District. Their main problem is traffic.
There is also the upper-upcounty, which geographically might as well be in Frederick County rather than Montgomery. Much of the far-upcounty is rural, and the residents' battle there is to keep it that way, against the sprawl from the Germantown developments. "We are the last rural outpost in Montgomery County," said Liz Tolbert, Barnesville's mayor for 10 years.
But both areas have in common a feeling of isolation from and political impotence in the rest of Montgomery County -- feelings that have led to political apathy and low voter turnout, many say. Some candidates have staked their campaigns partly on persuading upcounty residents the reason they have no power is they don't vote.
Upcounty residents believe their area has become a handy place to put projects the densely populated lower county doesn't want. A controversial landfill at Laytonsville opened in June, over the opposition of a vocal citizens' group. An interim sludge plant at Dickerson is still operating, past the scheduled Sept. 1 shutdown date. The county council must decide soon on two more controversial projects -- a costly incinerator for Gaithersburg and a rock quarry at Boyds.
"The upcounty is a dumping ground for unwanted projects," said Del. Robin Ficker, the maverick Republican from West Bethesda who has taken on the role of championing upcounty causes.
Said Tolbert: "They only remember us when it comes to sludge plants." There's another time the upcounty is remembered. "We're always important at election time," Tolbert said.
The upcounty this year does figure prominently in the strategies of the candidates running for Senate in the 15th legislative district, Democratic incumbent Laurence Levitan and challenger Allan C. Levey, both from Potomac.
Two amendments to the county charter, which are also on the Nov. 2 ballot, could directly affect the upcounty. One proposal, which is expected to pass, would set up a process that could lead to the eventual election of council members by district. The seven county council members now are elected at-large. Three incumbents live in Chevy Chase and one each in Potomac, Silver Spring, Rockville and Burtonsville.
Another, more controversial charter amendment, sponsored by Ficker, would prohibit the county government from doing business with the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. unless it includes Gaithersburg and Montgomery Village in the metropolitan Washington calling area. Those upcounty residents now pay long-distance rates to call Prince George's County or Northern Virginia, adding further to the feeling of isolation.
Most of the upcounty is included in the 15th legislative district, one of the largest in the state. It stretches north and west from West Bethesda and Potomac to Clarksburg and Damascus with Germantown and Montgomery Village in between.
For the past eight years, the 15th District has been represented in the state Senate by Levitan, a lawyer who chairs the Senate's powerful Budget and Taxation Committee. Levitan previously served in the House of Delegates for two terms. He is facing a stiff challenge this year from Levey, the state's Republican party chairman.
With the rivals sharing the same Potomac base, the fight has shifted north. Levitan and Levey have spent large chunks of their campaigning time upcounty, at the Damascus fair, a Damascus high school football game, a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Germantown and shopping centers in Montgomery Village. Mostly they are asked why the roads are in such bad shape.
"It's going to be won or lost up here," Levey said. "I think Larry knows that."
Said Levitan: "I didn't spend enough time upcounty during the primary. That was a mistake. I particularly should have spent more time in the Germantown-Poolesville area. They think an upcounty person may be more responsive to them. What we're trying to convince them of is even though they're upcounty and have their own concerns, many of their concerns are the same as other Montgomery countians."
Levitan won a bitter Democratic primary bout with businessman Anthony Puca on the strength of the incumbent's Potomac vote. But Puca's up-county strength scared Levitan. In Damascus, for example, he and Puca split the city's four precincts.
Levitan since has been trying to make more inroads into Damascus and the upcounty. After the primary, he trekked up for a meeting with the editor of the Damascus Courier newspaper, which endorsed Puca during the primary. Levitan had never met the editor.
Levitan has a handy entre'e on his visits -- Del. Jerry Hyatt, a member of his slate and a lifetime Damascus resident whose name is to the upcounty what the Lee family is to lower Montgomery. To Republicans and Democrats alike, the upcounty is considered "Hyatt country."
Jean Roesser, a Republican candidate for delegate in the 15th District, said whenever she ventures upcounty, people ask her "Are you running against Jerry?" She said "everybody has grown up with Jerry, or they know his mother. So Jerry is a given in Damascus."
Levitan is counting on some of Hyatt's upcounty support to pull him through. At a recent parents' night at an area high school, the two made one of their many joint appearances. Everyone knew Jerry, affectionately known as "Gerby," and Jerry introduced everyone to Larry, the Potomac lawyer in the shiny, tasseled shoes, who looked slightly out of place with all that backslapping and all those pointed cowboy boots.
Wherever Levey goes, he talks about the roads. "The roads are bad," he said, winding his blue Caprice along two-lane Rte. 355. "In the mornings," Levey said, slowing at the intersection with Rte. 118, "it's horrendous."
Levitan agrees the roads are a mess, and he thinks he is the best suited to handle the problem, as chairman of the committee that controls the state budget. He points out he has been able to promise a traffic light at that car-clogged Gaithersburg intersection.
"He's been in office for 12 years," Levey retorted, "and nothing has been done."
Levitan and Levey also have traded accusations of conflicts of interest. Levey, picking up where Puca left off, accuses Levitan at every stop of "intermingling his law practice with his legislation in Annapolis."
As an example, Levey cites the incumbent's sponsorship of a bill to eliminate the interest ceiling on home mortgages at the same time his law firm represented a mortgage banker.
Levey frequently also accuses Levitan of having a conflict for supporting this year's bill to raise bank interest rates on credit cards, while his law firm represents bankers.
Levey has promised a tougher conflict-of-interest law to prohibit legislators from voting on bills that may affect them.
On the other hand, Levey, a dentist, said he would lobby on bills that would affect his profession because of his expertise. Levitan called that logic "crazy" because often in Annapolis the lobbying is more important than the voting.
Levitan dismisses the conflict charges against him, saying his ties to bankers and real estate interests give him an expertise needed in Annapolis. "The expertise that I bring is good," he said. "If we didn't have that expertise in-house, it means you have to rely on what lobbyists say.
"If I didn't know the subjects, it would be a poorer place. I welcome the teachers in the legislature commenting on education bills. I welcome the farmers commenting on farm bills. That's what a citizen legislature is all about."
The 15th District's three incumbent delegates are Republican Ficker and Democrats Hyatt and Judith Toth. Until this year, the district was subdivided so that the upcounty Damascus area elected one delegate, and the downcounty elected the other two. Redistricting abolished that, and the three must run across the entire district.
The unknown factor is Ficker, whose name recognition is widespread for his tireless door-knocking campaign, championship of upcounty causes and reputation as the county's premier signature gatherer. Ficker has collected hundreds of thousands of signatures on ballot petitions ranging from where to place landfills to getting local telephone rates for upcounty residents.
The Republican delegate candidates running with Ficker this year are Roesser, who finished first in the primary, ahead of Ficker, and Jean Cryor.
The third Democratic delegate candidate, who came in a strong second in the primary, is Gene Counihan of Montgomery Village. With Toth from Potomac, Counihan from Montgomery Village in the middle and Hyatt from Damascus, the Democrats think their ticket has a strong geographic balance and appeal.
"That's a definite factor," Roesser said. "The Democrats have taken care of their geographic balance."