In less time than it has taken Maryland lawmakers to figure out whether to build a highway next to her house, Anne Willson married, raised three children, became a widow and is now watching her five grandsons grow up.
The Willson family farm, once 2,000 acres of rolling hills in central Montgomery County, was parceled, put up for sale and swallowed by encroaching suburbia. But a swath of meadows and woods was set aside by officials for the long-awaited intercounty connector, or ICC.
Set aside, that is, until Wednesday, when Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) said no, the 18-mile road would not be built after all, and the land along its right of way would be sold or turned into parkland.
Like many others who live near the ICC's path and believe that the road--on the drawing board for 50 years--would destroy the tranquillity of their neighborhoods, Willson found a glimmer of hope in Glendening's decision. Yet, like other longtime followers of the ICC's many twists and turns, she took the news with a grain of salt.
"It's been a long time. A long time," she said the day after Glendening's announcement. "There have been so many changes. I'm hopeful that this time they won't reconsider it again."
As if on cue, the reconsidering started almost immediately. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said he would see whether the county could buy up the land along the ICC right of way to keep the road proposal alive. The state comptroller, the state treasurer, the speaker of the House of Delegates and the state Senate president have announced that the land accumulated for the road should not be sold.
The road, though wounded, was not dead yet.
The ICC would cut through the middle of Montgomery to connect Interstate 270 near Gaithersburg and Interstate 95 near Laurel. It has been a source of controversy since it was put on the table half a century ago. The debate rose and ebbed through the decades, but it has reached a fever pitch in recent years, as rapid growth across the Washington area has made traffic a mess.
Last week, Glendening tried to end the decades of controversy, saying the state would sell some of the rights of way acquired over the years for the road's many possible alignments. He also said two sections of parkway should be built at what would have been the ICC's eastern and western edges.
For many commuters and business leaders, the ICC could solve what they consider Montgomery's biggest transportation headache: the lack of a convenient east-west thruway to and from Prince George's County. Others see the road as a $1.1 billion affront to some of Montgomery's most fragile ecosystems and to the quality of life in the dozens of neighborhoods it would traverse.
The clash swirls around some of suburbia's deepest anxieties--traffic, sprawl and property values. Passions are heated on both sides, often dictated by who has to commute and how far.
"I don't feel we ought to pave another darned road just so some guy who wants to live in a cheap house in the suburbs can have a high-paying job in the city," said Nick Creekmore, a potter and bagel-maker who was having his car repaired at a garage on New Hampshire Avenue near the ICC's proposed route.
Still, even in neighborhoods the ICC would cross, some supporters for the road can be found. Even some families have debates at the dinner table.
Take Audrey Schweiger, who runs a home-based consulting business in Oak Springs, a community that backs up to the right of way for the ICC's master plan alignment. To Schweiger, the ICC sounds like more traffic and noise in her quiet neighborhood of suburban cul-de-sacs. She'd be happy if it never was built.
"But my husband has to frequently drive to Frederick and Gaithersburg for his job, and there's just no good way to get there," she said. "He's rather in favor of it."
Her husband is not the only supporter of the road in this community, which was built just west of the Paint Branch, an environmentally sensitive stream cited by federal environmental officials last year as one of the main reasons to oppose the ICC.
Neighbor Bob Covell, an engineer, has seen his commuting time double during his 16 years in Oak Springs. And, he added, "it takes my wife 45 minutes or an hour to get to her job in Friendship Heights, and that's just 10 miles or so away. That's just crazy."
Back in Anne Willson's neighborhood, as in other neighborhoods along the ICC right of way, the fields and groves set aside for so many years for the unbuilt highway have allowed the community to maintain a remnant of its bucolic past while surrounding areas were paved and dotted with tract housing. Narrow Longmead Road wends toward the running waters of the Northwest Branch, and on a typical September weekday, birds and crickets can be heard instead of cars whizzing by.
Lisa Marsh says it's a great place to raise her three young children. Her back yard, with its swing and big poplar tree, backs up to the fields of the right of way. Marsh, who used to live along I-95 in Prince George's, remembers the noise and dust from the highway. "It's really special here. We'd like to see it stay this way," she said.
She and her husband bought their house last year, when it looked as if the ICC would not be built in their neighborhood. Then it was back on the table. Now it's off again. Maybe.
"It just shows you how complicated the issue is," she said yesterday. Even though she'd rather not see the road built, she thinks selling the right of way might be a bad idea, too, especially if the county ends up buying it. "It's ridiculous. It just seems like a waste of money." She believes that by building the two stretches of highway on either end of the ICC, Glendening may be forcing its eventual construction.
"Maybe it won't be on his watch," she said, "but by building those sections, you're limiting the options in the future. Something will happen in the middle."
By now, many residents have grown used to the back and forth, the changes, the alternative alignments, the flip-flopping by politicians. The governor himself has had a few changes of heart about the matter. People on both sides of the issue have become cynical about it all.
"For years, local politicians have used it as a tool to gain votes," said Gary Clark, the owner of Cloverly Automotive Repair, who recalled attending a political fund-raiser once and hearing the same public official take two different, contradictory positions on the ICC to two potential voters. "Every politician was flip-flopping. It was all you could do to keep up."
The issue often leads to contradictory feelings for voters themselves.
"There is a need for a big east-west road somewhere. But--what's the saying?--not in my back yard," said Oglivia Abernathy, a retired federal worker who remembers hearing the cows moo when she bought her Norbeck Road home 20 years ago.
She, too, took Glendening's vow to kill the ICC with a grain of salt.
"They'll just call it something else," she said.