When Marvin E. Ausherman's father began building homes in Frederick nearly 55 years ago, the city gladly built just about everything else necessary to support the growing neighborhoods: schools, streets, sidewalks, water and sewer lines. Builders such as his late father, Ernest, were admired for their work.
Now, after thousands of Ausherman homes have sprung up around the city and Frederick County, the second-generation developer elicits a different reaction when he pitches new housing projects to public officials.
"Today, I go into the meetings, they put their heads down. They shake their heads," Marvin Ausherman said. "They look at what I'm doing to the county as something harmful, and I'm doing the same thing we've been doing for 50 years."
Nothing illustrates better the way the ground has shifted for developers than Ausherman's latest proposal. Eager to move forward on a 763-dwelling development a few miles south of the city, Ausherman has offered to fund the construction of an approximately $8 million addition to a high school that opened in 2003.
He had little choice: Under a county planning ordinance designed to ensure that new development will have adequate water, roads, sewers and schools, Ausherman's plan to develop the property would have died. Yet, to his surprise, some in the community have not offered thanks for a privately funded, 350-seat school addition. Some have even called his proposal a bribe.
"When I first heard that comment, I was hurt," Ausherman said. "It was insulting to me."
Ausherman's offer, now in the hands of the Board of Education, has revealed an unforeseen quirk in an important planning ordinance and reopened the wounds over a bitterly contested decision by the Frederick Board of County Commissioners earlier this year to rezone the property, known as the Linton farm. It also has highlighted the growing tendency to exact more concessions from developers.
"This is new, as far as buying a school," fellow developer Farhad Memarsadeghi said. "Probably he has no other choice. But I think it's good for the county, no doubt, because he's building a school."
Memarsadeghi, owner of Admar Custom Homes, now is offering to set aside twice as much water as usual for each of about 200 new homes he has proposed building in Middletown, where questions of adequate water supplies caused state environmental officials to impose a temporary building moratorium.
"I think, unfortunately, the trend has been more and more on the shoulder of developers," Memarsadeghi said.
Michael L. Cady (R), vice president of the county commission, was more blunt.
"I phrase it as 'legalized extortion,' " Cady said. "We're saying, if you want to build a house in Frederick County, you better come prepared to build roads, water, sewer and schools."
Yet even for people who customarily bash developers, it's an offer that can't be refused.
"Every so many leap years, the developers and I agree on something," said John L. "Lennie" Thompson (R), president of the county commission. In January, Thompson -- who ran for office on a slogan chastising developers -- battled rezoning the Linton farm property for housing. Having lost, however, he welcomed Ausherman's proposal to use private funds to build the school addition, even as he remained wary of the details.
"There's been a lot of words, a lot of talk," Thompson said. "I haven't seen any cash. That's the first order of business. Where's the dough?"
Ausherman's proposal also has come to signify a turnabout in land-use policy by the commissioners. Previous boards had taken steps to curb growth. The current board, elected in a property-rights backlash, has been more friendly to developers and landowners. Following a rancorous meeting Jan. 6, the approximately 140-acre Linton property became the first to be rezoned for development by the current board.
The developer's representatives argued that the site, at Ballenger Creek Pike and Elmer Derr Road, had long been targeted for residential growth. During the debate, however, commission member Jan Gardner (D) warned that the development might reduce open space, overextend available police protection and crowd neighborhood schools.
Cady moved to cut off that debate, saying that by law the question of schools adequacy would be considered at later stages of the process. His motion -- and the rezoning -- won by a 3 to 2 vote.
However, county officials said that shortcomings in the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, designed to ensure that new development is well-planned, became apparently as the project moved through the approval process. For example, an analysis by the Frederick County school system found that the project failed to meet the ordinance's schools guidelines because schools at every level were over capacity.
Yet the ordinance also is written in a way that indicates that the opening of new schools nearby -- in this case, Tuscarora Elementary School and Crestwood Middle School -- would mitigate that failure. However, the ordinance did not take into account that the two new schools, which opened in September, opened at full capacity, or close to it, because of redistricting that shifted students from elsewhere.
After the project failed the schools test, Ausherman proposed funding the design, construction and equipping of an addition for Tuscarora High School.
"Basically, to me, it's a bribe he's offering," Barbara K. Wilson, who lives on Elmer Derr Road, said last week. "He's not offering it out of the goodness of his heart. He's offering it because he wants something in return." She said she would not be surprised if the developer passes on the cost of the school to the buyers of the new homes.
Wilson, who spoke out against the rezoning in January, said Ausherman's proposal suggests that a rich person can buy what he wants from the government, no matter what other citizens may want.
"A normal person can't go out and offer $10 million to get something passed," she said. "But that's basically what he's doing."
But Cady said Ausherman has offered to do more than he was required to do. Analysis by the schools staff found that his development would create a shortage of 65 seats. His addition is five times that, Cady said.
What's more, by putting up millions for a school addition before breaking ground on any houses, Ausherman is assuming enormous financial risk, Cady said. Should interest rates rise sharply, or if home prices were to collapse, for example, Ausherman could lose a lot of money, Cady said.
Ray Barnes, executive director of the county schools' Facilities Services Division, told the Board of Education that the high school addition would be needed regardless of the development. Barnes also noted that Ausherman's offer actually could speed up the process and set a precedent in pushing developers to provide needed schools.
On the downside, Barnes said, he is worried that the private funds could be used to supplant, rather than supplement, public money for schools. And, he said, the proposed addition might bump other awaited projects. Finally, he urged caution because such offers could involve the Board of Education in land-use debates.
The housing development cleared the last planning hurdle last month, when the Planning Commission approved it, 5 to 1. All that remains is for the Board of Education to work out a letter of understanding with Ausherman on how to carry out the construction of the high school addition.
Looking back, Cady said he believed the project should not have received approval after being subjected to testing for adequate schools.
"Should it have passed? No," Cady said, adding that the law is "flawed in a number of ways." He said he and Gardner are discussing ways to strengthen the schools test while also adding tests for gauging the adequacy of nearby parks and police protection.
Ausherman "helped reveal the flaws in the law," Cady said. "No one ever dreamed that a developer would put $10 million on the table and say, 'I'll build that school.' "