In Charles County, 1999 began with the final moves in a tumultuous battle over the character and pace of growth, and the year ended with an array of growth-fueled controversies yet to be resolved.
In February commissioners approved a tough new set of town house regulations, leading to the end of a town house moratorium they had imposed during the election campaign of the previous fall.
The new rules make town houses more expensive to build and harder to push through the county's approval processes. Results were dramatic. For the first 11 months of 1999, the county issued permits for builders to construct 116 town houses--compared with 424 in the same period in 1998.
Including single-family homes, the county issued building permits for 1,082 new residential dwelling units in the first 11 months of 1999--a 21 percent drop from the same period a year earlier.
Nonetheless, the figures showed that Charles County would exceed 1,000 new homes for the fourth year running. By year's end, county officials estimated the population at 124,122--a 23 percent increase over the 1990 population of 101,154.
The figures portray rapid growth that has transformed the county in one generation. In 1970 the population stood at 47,678--less than 40 percent of the current level.
With new arrivals demanding services, including schools, the county treasury came under pressure. In May the county commissioners voted the first increase in eight years in the main county tax, the real estate levy. The rate went up 2 percent to help pay for a $152 million budget.
Commissioners said the tax increase would reap another $4.4 million, and pledged the money to the public schools, which have contended with crowding and lagging test scores.
When test results were announced last month, Charles County schools ranked 17th out of Maryland's 24 major jurisdictions on the widely watched Maryland School Performance Assessment Test. The county had ranked 19th the previous year.
The year saw pressure on Charles County finances from another source, as the General Assembly approved electricity deregulation legislation that will reduce the levy the county collects from the coal-burning power plant at Morgantown. The facility has accounted for 10 percent of the county's property tax collections.
At year's end, several potentially major issues had resolutions pending:
* The appointed Planning Commission on Monday voted against a proposal from county commissioners to ban the construction of houses smaller than 1,650 square feet. The planners' vote is advisory only; a final decision rests with the elected commissioners.
Commissioners said the ban would head off a potential rush to construct tiny homes by builders thwarted by the town house regulations. Critics said the proposal threatens to restrict housing opportunities for those with low and moderate incomes.
* Officials continued mulling whether the county should support construction of a bypass of U.S. Route 301 to the west of Waldorf, as recommended by a state-sponsored study group in 1996.
The idea sparked immediate opposition, with critics saying it would cause harmful sprawl development. Advocates say the bypass is needed to alleviate severe and growing traffic problems in Waldorf, the county's commercial and population center.
A decision is expected by early 2001. In the meantime, the state has purchased roughly 200 acres on the west side of Waldorf in case officials decide to build a bypass.
* A citizens' advisory panel is soon to be formed to advise state and local officials on uses for the former Chapman's Landing tract, 2,225 acres along the Potomac River in western Charles County. The state bought most of the parcel in 1998 to prevent a large housing development, and received the remaining acreage after a similar purchase by a preservation group.
Many who campaigned against the housing development want the land preserved as forest. Some Charles County leaders say they may want to use some of the land for athletic fields, and perhaps even a conference center and golf course.
* In the planned community of St. Charles that forms the heart of Waldorf, some residents began a campaign to form a municipal government. Organizers said the movement was motivated partly by concern over crime in the area, home to about one in four county residents.
* The county's only hospital ended the year with no public resolution to a cash-flow crisis.
In October executives of Civista Medical Center asked county commissioners for a loan of as much as $10 million, saying billing shortfalls had left a deficit.
Commissioners asked Civista to examine its problem more closely and propose a solution before they would spend public funds. Civista officials said a large loan falls due this month.
* Residents of western Charles County promised more advocacy for and against a plan to build 503 homes in the rural Mason Springs area. Opponents said the linked Hunters Brooke and Falcon Ridge developments represent intrusive sprawl development. Supporters said the homes would bring needed new life to the economically struggling Indian Head area.
* Commissioners finished the year without taking action on surface mining. A commissioner-appointed task force in August called for some reforms in mining, which involves stripping soil from large tracts to extract the sand and gravel that lies underneath.
Critics call the process unsightly, environmentally damaging and harmful to the values of nearby homes. Supporters say mining is conducted in an environmentally benign manner, that its impacts are temporary, and that landowners have a right to exploit the value of their mineral deposits.
In other developments, commissioners said they would cooperate closely with a revived Economic Development Commission.
In August, commissioners voted to allow city-style development in Waldorf, approving rules that permit taller apartment buildings and densely populated, mixed-use neighborhoods.
In December, county officials said they had lured back a high-tech parts manufacturer that had announced a move to Calvert County, where economic development officials offer free land to some incoming firms.
Officials said the retention of MDL Fabricating Inc. and an expansion of Capital Welding Inc. signaled that the county's emphasis on economic development is bearing fruit.
In October county officials said Columbia Electric Corp. planned to build a low-emission gas-burning power plant in eastern Waldorf, producing 35 permanent jobs and several hundred construction jobs.
Waldorf's Hechinger Co. store, a fixture since 1989, closed with a loss of about 100 jobs late in the year as the 88-year-old Washington-based home improvement chain succumbed to competitors.
The Stardust Lounge, an icon of the vanished era when slot machines were legal in Charles County, went under the wrecker's ball in June.
CAPTION: The Stardust lounge in Waldorf, a star of the old gambling-fueled nightclub scene, was itself reduced to dust in June. Southern Maryland once had the only legal slot machines east of Las Vegas.
CAPTION: Still up in the air is Charles County's decision to widen Route 301, above, or build a western bypass.