It was a time of transition in St. Mary's County, with five new commissioners presiding over county government in 1999.
That meant several political adjustments as the four Democrats and one Republican elected in November 1998 settled into their first year of overseeing the county budget and general government functions.
One of their first moves was to adopt a revised Comprehensive Plan for the future growth and development of St. Mary's County. The plan had been stalled through most of 1998 by disagreements among the five Republicans who formerly made up the Board of Commissioners. Their disputes over some key growth management policies, including how to compensate farmers for land committed to open space preservation, had left St. Mary's as the only county in Maryland that had failed to comply with a state mandate to update local planning documents.
The March approval of the plan removed the threat that St. Mary's could lose eligibility for millions of dollars in state grants and other funding for rural preservation. With the revised plan approved, officials are continuing the process of updating the zoning ordinances that implement the county's growth policies.
Throughout 1999, growth and how to deal with it have driven much of the public debate in St. Mary's County, as in the rest of Southern Maryland. The region's three counties were in the state's top four most rapidly growing counties.
Continuing population increases left commissioners looking for ways to manage the changes and keep up with demands for public services.
Accommodating the growth and maintaining the area's rural heritage often put pressure on farmers. Scores of them staged a demonstration at the county government center in Leonardtown last March to challenge one official's assertion that farming is dying in St. Mary's, strangled by suburban sprawl.
The farmers drove to a Planning Commission meeting in their combines, tractors and trucks. They came to advocate policies that would encourage preservation of open space and also enable them to get some of the development value out of their land while continuing to farm it.
While the new commissioners moved quickly to close out the Comprehensive Plan debate, they acted almost as quickly to reopen another old issue: what to do with the 192 acres of county-owned Patuxent River waterfront at Myrtle Point.
The prior Board of Commissioners had adopted a plan that called for soccer and baseball fields at the property just north of Town Creek. That approach, while favored by park advocates, had been strongly opposed by others who favored preservation rather than development of the land.
In January, the newly elected commissioners threw out the ballfield plan and sent the master plan back to the Alexandria, Va., consultants who drafted it.
County officials also began the year finalizing a $26.4 million contract with MCI Systemhouse Inc. for a new emergency communications system and ended the year breaking ground for the building that will house the command center in Leonardtown.
In August, a divided Board of Commissioners picked a site for a new Lexington Park library. Those who supported the location in the heart of downtown said they want the new facility to become a catalyst for the revitalization of Lexington Park.
"We're building more than a library," Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. (D-Leonardtown) said at the time. "It's actually going to be the focal point of the community."
The 4.2-acre site on South Shangri-La Drive will be donated to the county by developer Robert F. Gabrelcik. The library board and many patrons had preferred building the new library in Nicolet Park.
Another project that moved ahead in 1999 is the massive Tudor Hall Village development in Leonardtown. In mid-December the state Board of Public Works approved $5.5 million in loans and grants to help finance the conference center and golf course that are to be part of the Breton Bay waterfront project.
Once completed, Tudor Hall Village would add nearly 600 housing units to Leonardtown, roughly doubling the current number.
The year brought several economic development initiatives, many of them related to tourism and travel in St. Mary's.
In July, commissioners adopted a new hotel/motel tax that is projected to raise $300,000 annually to promote local tourism. Even before they enacted the levy on lodging, the commissioners had committed $100,000 of its proceeds to pay for television commercials aired on WJLA-TV, the local ABC network affiliate.
At the end of the year, a new group of government, business, education and community leaders called the Local Workforce Investment Board formed to develop strategies to help Southern Maryland workers meet the needs of the high-tech, tourism and retail industries that dominate the region's economy.
Natural disasters punctuated the calendar in St. Mary's and the region. Hurricane Floyd roared through in mid-September, but its long trek up the East Coast had given area residents a lot of time to prepare, and its glancing blow to Southern Maryland meant that damage was largely limited to flooding and downed trees and power lines.
The prolonged drought was not as forgiving. Before rains finally came at the end of August, farmers' crops and homeowners' lawns had fallen victim to the dry conditions that had persisted for most of 15 months dating to spring 1998.
In St. Mary's County, as well as Charles, residents were asked to take voluntary steps to conserve water. One of the hardest hit residential areas was the Society Hill neighborhood south of Leonardtown. Several drinking water wells failed there and others experienced low pressure and sediment mixed with the water.
For many farmers, the drought meant a year without a harvest. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) visited one wiped-out farm late last summer, pledging aid to family farmers.
One issue that is sure to remain on the public agenda in the coming year is whether to allow a proposed trash transfer station and recycling center at Charlotte Hall.
The proposal by Waste Management of Maryland drew more than 100 people to a public forum in April. By the time it reached a public hearing before county commissioners in November, the trash station was still dividing St. Mary's residents.
Opponents say the facility would create excessive truck traffic in Charlotte Hall and could shroud the area with offensive odors and foul the soil. Proponents say it would do no harm and would save the county money.
The project still needs approval from the commissioners for an amendment to the Solid Waste Management Plan before it can move ahead. Once operating, the station would handle about 1,000 tons of solid waste a day.
CAPTION: Diane Bean holds on to Kody after the two were rescued from the threat of a rising St. Mary's River during Hurricane Floyd last September. Bean, of Great Mills, took shelter at the local high school, which served as a Red Cross shelter.
CAPTION: Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), left, and farmer Bill Lyon walk by cornfields stunted by last summer's drought. Hoyer met with local farmers at Lyon's farm near Helen to view the drought damage and discuss aid plans.