La Plata Mayor Gene Ambrogio was elected in the spring as a staunch opponent of expanding the town's borders. This month, in the first post-election test of that policy, Ambrogio seems to be sticking with his central campaign theme.
At issue is a prime intersection in Charles County that could become the northern gateway to the county seat and town of 8,500. Developers want La Plata to annex 97 acres -- between Route 301 and Washington Avenue -- partly to create a complex for shopping and senior citizen housing.
The way Ambrogio sees it, the town should not expand until it has developed available land within its boundaries. Ambrogio has characterized the Rosewick Crossing project as "just another sea of asphalt with stores."
"Do we want to be La Waldorf?" he asked last week, after a hearing on the project before the Charles County commissioners. "People move down to La Plata to get away from all the congestion."
Town residents will have an opportunity to comment on the annexation at a public forum scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Evie Hungerford of Indian Head, who has worked as a spokeswoman for project developers Faison Enterprises Inc., defended the proposal. In developments already approved, as many as 5,000 new homes could be built in the next decade in La Plata, Hungerford said, and the new residents would need more commercial outlets.
"The complexion of La Plata is wonderful just where it is in the town, but outside the area, the baby boomers are going to require certain things," she said. "To put your head in the sand is not the way to go."
The Charles County Board of Commissioners has bolstered Ambrogio's position, its members unanimously rejecting a proposed zoning change last week that would have rewritten the rules for the area and cleared the way for the retail center.
The question before the commissioners Tuesday was a seemingly technical one. But the discussion quickly evolved into something of a warm-up for the commissioners' 2006 campaign season. They touched on hot issues likely to figure in the outcome of the elections, such as crowded schools, roadways and crime.
Commissioner Al Smith (R-Waldorf), who has toyed with challenging commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large), called for a development "timeout" and the need to "rein in unbridled growth in La Plata."
Commissioner Candice Quinn Kelly (R-La Plata) concurred. "I'm a shopper with the best of them," she told the developers, but "I don't know that the demand is there." The county's resources -- from sheriff's deputies to space for students in public schools -- are stretched, Kelly said.
Faison Enterprises, which built the Waldorf Marketplace on Route 228, has proposed a Lowe's home center and a Giant grocery store for the site at Route 301 and the soon-to-be extended Rosewick Road. The development would include 120 homes for seniors.
As part of the project, the developers have offered to offset the effect on the town by redirecting sewage flow in the area and building a well and water tower. An evaluation by town officials on whether the developer has met standards for providing public facilities finds the project "has offered to meet and exceed those guidelines."
After the commissioners rejected the zoning change last week, David Cooksey, a consultant on the project with the engineering firm Loiederman Soltesz Associates, said of their decision, "It seems to me they're saying the town doesn't know how to manage its growth.
"It's a lack of understanding of the proposal," said Cooksey, shaking his head in disbelief. "Smart growth says you should grow where there's already growth."
Town Manager Doug Miller stressed that the La Plata council has not yet taken a position on the project. He took issue with Smith's suggestion that development in La Plata is out of control.
"I don't fault Commissioner Smith. He doesn't want us to annex willy-nilly," Miller said. "But I somewhat object to his inference that we don't know about our needs or care about them. We've prided ourselves in trying to stay ahead of those needs."