In rural Damascus, the only library for miles operates out of a tiny storefront wedged between an eye care center and a dry cleaning shop. Nearby roads in and around Germantown are jammed with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Not far away, classrooms in Gaithersburg are crammed. And one police station serves a 295-square-mile section of northern Montgomery County.
This is Montgomery's upcounty region -- the chaotic side of one of the country's most affluent counties. In the past decade, booming development has brought thousands of new town houses and office buildings, placing an unprecedented strain on area schools, outstripping county and state construction of new roads and road improvements, and causing massive traffic snarls that tie up motorists for hours.
Along with the tremendous growth, many of the 150,000 northern Montgomery residents have complained that they are second-class citizens in the county of 620,000 -- ignored by politicians in the other part of the county who they say do not understand the problems of rapid development north of Bethesda-Chevy Chase or Silver Spring.
Jon Gerson, executive director of the Gaithersburg and Upper Montgomery Chamber of Commerce, said, "The majority of the players that allocate resources to our community live downcounty. Their awareness of the needs of this area have been somewhat limited.
"There is no question that if there were more representatives who either lived or worked upcounty on the legislative bodies that allocate resources to the region, it would substantially enhance the rapport and communication between upper and lower county."
The frustrations of upcounty civic groups and political leaders exploded this month over the County Council's appointment of a Bethesda woman, Rosalie Silverberg, to the open seat on the powerful five-member planning board that already has four members from Bethesda. County Executive Charles Gilchrist vetoed the appointment Monday, citing the "insensitivity" of such a choice, and he urged the County Council to appoint a member from a different section of Montgomery.
"We just think it's ridiculous that the only people ever qualified to sit on the planning board are ones that have Bethesda addresses," said Linda Bell, chairwoman of the Committee for the Upcounty, a coalition of business and civic leaders. "It's an issue of fairness." Now that the nomination process has been reopened, Bell, a real estate sales agent from Germantown, is applying for the seat.
During this highly volatile election season in Montgomery County, some upcounty frustrations are being vented. Upcounty activists for the first time have organized to try to secure a seat on the seven-member County Council for a northern Montgomery resident.
Michael Subin from Gaithersburg -- a former Republican -- was chosen by Democratic Party leaders and council incumbents to run on a Democratic slate from Gaithersburg, an important advantage for new candidates because it saves costs and allows them to run with well-known incumbents. He won a place on the ticket over Jay Bernstein, chairman of the county Democratic Central Committee, who lives in Potomac.
"The average citizen in the upcounty is frustrated beyond belief because they sit in traffic jams and their kids go to schools that are overcrowded from the day they open," said Bruce Adams, a Democratic council candidate from Bethesda who has been campaigning in the upcounty area. "They feel that people downcounty are not paying attention to them."
One sign that downcounty politicians are listening to their northern neighbors is a proposal gaining momentum this year that would elect council members from specific districts, including upcounty. The council, in a preliminary vote two weeks ago, agreed to place a referendum on the November ballot that proposes adding two members to the council and requiring five of them to be elected from districts rather than from at large, as they are now.
A change in council election methods has been debated for more than a decade, but a 1984 referendum to amend the county charter and elect five council members by district and two at large was defeated.
"There is, in fact, great diversity" in the county, said Dennis Lavallee, of Voters for Representative Government, a county coalition lobbying for the change. "Certainly, Takoma Park, Potomac, Boyds and Laytonsville have very different concerns."
Those concerns extend beyond traffic jams and school crowding. For example, in Laytonsville, the county's only dump site is a sore point with some area residents, who are becoming increasingly active on the issue.
Tempers are fuming there over a proposal to enlarge the current Oaks Landfill after it reaches capacity in three years. Area residents were promised four years ago that the site was temporary.
"Now they're saying, 'Gee, golly whiz, we might have to expand it,' " said Carol Fanconi, a civic activist from Laytonsville.
Fanconi and her neighbors also complain about police response time. They pointed to county police figures that show that the expansive Germantown police district, which serves the upcounty region, has the highest level of crime in the county and is the only district in the county with an increase in murder, rape and robbery rates.
At the same time, the Germantown police station has the lowest number of patrol officers per capita and the slowest response time in the county, 68 seconds worse than the county average, according to police department figures compiled by the county's office of management and budget. The county's 1985 figures show that Germantown has 85 patrol officers serving 137,044 residents, while Rockville has 92 officers serving 102,472 people.
County officials argue that they have paid more attention to the growth areas of the county in the past few years and have approved millions of dollars for new roads. About 11 new roads have been promised in the next five years. The police department is conducting a study to see if the upcounty has adequate manpower.
"There has been a turnaround," explained Edmond F. Rovner, a longtime aide to Gilchrist. "The upcounty is now getting a larger proportion of the county budget."
Council candidate Subin agreed that some priorities are changing. "Until recently there was a lot of frustration that the concerns were not being addressed by government," he said. "The frustration is still there, but the edge has been taken away by what is seen as some significant moves on the part of county government."
But they are playing a game of "catch-up," and northern Montgomery residents often get impatient -- and angry.
At a forum for County Council candidates in Damascus' small senior citizens center last week, resident Robert Stevenson stood up and complained that he had been trying for years to persuade the county to build a library in the tiny town near the northern border of Montgomery.
"You're sitting in the only decent public meeting place in this community," shouted Stevenson, chairman of the Damascus Library Committee.
With its population of about 5,000 expected to climb to more than 8,000 in four years, residents in Damascus are worried about whether the county will be able to provide needed public facilities.
"We're fooling ourselves if we say beautiful downtown Damascus," said Stevenson angrily. "It's gone . . . . It's gone."