There was no one
moment when Frank Martin realized that his life in Howard County had spun off in a new and probably irreversible direction.
It could have been the nine-hour zoning board hearing last year, in which the final vote against new housing in downtown Columbia came at 4:20 a.m. Maybe it was school officials referring to new houses as "student generators." Perhaps it was the Rouse Co.'s push to change Merriweather Post Pavilion, a much-loved landmark, into an enclosed, more upscale concert hall.
Or maybe it was all of that.
These days, Martin, who moved to Howard as a young boy with his parents in 1968, spends half his time away from his day job selling homes. He often visits the county's offices in Ellicott City and spends hundreds of hours with other residents studying land-use policy, soil testing, traffic and school census counts.
"I am fed up, and I am not going to take it anymore," Martin said, laughingly paraphrasing Howard Beale, anchorman in the 1970s movie "Network" and a symbol of popular rage against corporate greed.
Until recently, Howard County seemed a safe distance from the grinding disputes over development that have been a fact of life for decades in other communities. The county is tucked into a rural enclave off Interstate 95 between Washington and Baltimore, endowed with one of the country's highest median incomes ($88,500), and many residents believed that runaway growth and its discontents were other people's problems.
Martin and others say there is a new reality in Howard, and they are finding a collective voice to convey their fear that the county is veering off course.
Chief among the issues: traffic, especially at key intersections where volume is exceeding capacity. Main routes in and out of Howard to Washington and Baltimore are jammed during rush hours. The much-admired public school system has several elementary schools that are crowded. "People didn't move here to be in Baltimore or Washington. If they did, that's where they would live. These people could afford to live anywhere," Martin said.
Preservation Effort Frays
Howard's evolution from farmland to suburb was guided in large measure by James Rouse, the pioneering developer and driving force behind the planned community of Columbia. Rouse won special zoning rules for the unincorporated town that became the county's commercial and population center, allowing him unprecedented control that kept other developers at bay. He also set a standard for preservation of greenery and open space that residents have come to expect.
In the 1990s, when Columbia was mostly completed, politicians and planners moved to protect the rural western part of the county by barring extension of water and sewer lines to the region. It forced growth to the east of Route 108, near I-95 and Route 1.
The result has been a network of suburbs far more traditional than the Rouse model. More houses are jammed into less space with fewer trees. These suburbs also lack many of the Rouse amenities, such as the swimming pools, paths and parks that serve Columbia's 100,000 residents.
Nevertheless, the county grew. Between 1990 and 2000, its population rose 32 percent to about 264,000 residents.
With thousands of jobs projected for nearby Fort Meade, demand for housing will continue, straining overburdened water and sewer systems, adding traffic in a community with limited public transit and further crowding the school system.
The growth has sparked a new activism among those who thought they had understood the promise of Howard County.
Some critics say they believe that county leaders, perhaps accustomed to Rouse's genteel approach, simply were overtaken by the aggressiveness of more conventional developers.
"Since 1990, it seems that any application for development got a recommendation of approval from the planning department," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Howard), a former county executive defeated in a 1990 reelection bid by a Republican who favored more-rapid growth. "The pressure on people in elected office from the development community is just immense."
Residents Fight Back
The new activism has been visible at several important moments in recent months.
Although most of the county was asleep early last year when the Howard zoning board voted to kill a plan for housing in downtown Columbia, it was a hard-fought victory for development opponents. The five-member County Council, sitting as the zoning board, rejected Rouse Co. plans for a density increase in Columbia.
Earlier this year, the county planning board, traditionally sympathetic to developers but now shifted by new membership, turned down a request from developer Stewart Greenebaum to increase density at Maple Lawn Farms, a planned mix of retail and office space and at least 1,200 expensive homes south of Columbia. Its decision will go to the zoning board.
The planning board, appointed by County Executive James N. Robey (D), also voted in early 2005 against an expansion of Turf Valley, the golf course community west of Ellicott City where Martin lives.
When a citizen panel convened by Robey protested General Growth Properties' plan to downsize Merriweather Post Pavilion, the outdoor amphitheater, the company backed down, at least for now. General Growth bought Rouse and its assets late last year.
Residents' clout also was demonstrated recently in the swift collection of signatures for a referendum challenging a series of rezoning plans by the County Council. The vote won't occur until November 2006, freezing development on several parcels. A group of landowners has sued the county, seeking cancellation of the referendum.
The new activity also foreshadows likely themes in next year's county executive race, when Robey, who in his two terms has presided over much of the recent development, steps down because of term limits. Two County Council members, Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast County) and Christopher J. Merdon (R-Northeast County), who were elected on slow-growth platforms but who have disagreed on some issues, are widely viewed as front-runners for their party's nominations.
Robey bristles over criticism, saying he has done much to manage growth.
"It is not out of control. We have slowed down growth already," he said, noting annual reductions in the number of new houses the county is willing to allow.
Slowing it much more, he said, "would be irresponsible, an economic faux pas."
Buses Through Cornfields
Martin was in the audience at a County Council meeting last month, ready to read a statement on drinking water at his daughter's school -- it comes from a well near a leaking landfill -- when school officials handed out a chart that piqued his interest.
It showed that at least 12 of 67 Howard public schools were expected to have more students than they could handle by 2008. Even with trailers attached to the main buildings, some elementary schools are overcrowded.
"What's going on here?" Martin asked the council.
The answer: The crowded schools are near the sites of new schools expected to open in two to three years. So officials consider the problem solved.
Martin isn't so sure.
"The land has to be acquired, the bonds have to be issued, the schools have to be built," he said. "A lot could happen between now and then."
Some parts of the county, such as Turf Valley, broke ground long before the passage in 1991 of a county law requiring that schools, sewers and other infrastructure be able to handle new development. Turf Valley is not subject to the law, although it is expanding.
Ellen Makar, an engineer and former PTA president at Fulton Elementary School near Maple Lawn Farms, said she is worried about projections and promises of new subdivisions. Fulton, she said, is already bursting with children, and Maple Lawn is only in its early phases.
The absence of major rapid transit in the county also could make packed roads more crowded, she said.
"This county has worked well as a suburb and farming community. I don't see Maple Lawn working as an urban area," she said.
Figuring out when to add infrastructure is not a simple task, planners say.
"You can't run a bus system through the cornfields before the people get there," said Joseph Rutter, Howard's former planning director, who now heads planning and zoning in Anne Arundel County and who helped devise the plan for concentrating most new Howard houses in the east.
Howard residents are putting pressure on those who advocate more growth, seeing a slowdown as perhaps the only way to retain their way of life.
That is worrisome to planners and to county business leaders, who fear it will threaten expansion of the county's tax base.
"Now we have built a constituency that doesn't want anything to change. A major part of it is once the people get here, they want the door closed behind them. From a political standpoint, that makes it very difficult," Rutter said.
Martin said he and other activists aren't opposed to growth. Their concern is careful management.
"Change is inevitable. Let's lay out the plan for how that is going to happen. Don't do it at 4 in the morning.
"I am not in this for the political drama," he said. "People here have chosen a specific lifestyle, and they don't want it eroded."