'Defenders' Needs To Spell Out Its Solutions

Kai Hagen

July 31, 2002

If you get most of your information about local issues by reading the Frederick News-Post, you might have the impression that the Defenders of Citizens Rights, Inc. - better known as the Defenders - are a "new force in politics."

It appears the Frederick News-Post would like you to think the Defenders are a growing force to be reckoned with in Frederick County. And the newspaper clearly wants to support them, even if indirectly. One staff reporter who has written articles about the Defenders had no problem telling a member of the Board of County Commissioners that she supports the group.

A few of our elected leaders and leader wannabes are also convinced the Defenders wield political clout, and they've been jumping on the bandwagon.

And Defenders President Walter Mills wants "everybody in the county to be on board."

Count me out.

Way out.

And I won't be the only one.

The wheels are going to fall off this bandwagon, and the Defenders leaders will have only themselves to blame.

In a new version of an old story, the organizers and leaders of the Defenders have made the wrong assumptions about the breadth and depth of the support they received in the initial events that provided the impetus for creating the organization. Eventually, they will realize they have seriously misinterpreted the short burst of energy and enthusiasm that swirled around that first skirmish.

The Defenders formed last year when many residents along Highway 15, north of Frederick, felt threatened by a draft Planning Commission proposal to down-zone their properties.

Even though most people in the county do not want Highway 15 - a designated scenic byway - to become Frederick County's version of the I-270 and Rockville Pike corridor in neighboring Montgomery County, many county residents were sympathetic to the concerns of individual property owners whose financial well-being could have been affected by reducing the range of development options available to them.

Thinking broadly and long term, however, it makes sense to take steps to prevent the rural, scenic and historic Highway 15 corridor from gradually developing into a continuous commercial and corporate strip connecting expanding Frederick with the rural communities of Lewistown, Thurmont and Emmitsburg.

With proper management and planning, Frederick County can accommodate expected growth without sprawling across most of our remaining farms and woodlots. We are fortunate the county did not grow much earlier and faster. We have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes others have made. We can be smart about growth. We can be more economically efficient. We still have enough time and space to do things right.

But, it won't be easy.

County residents and voters overwhelmingly support the goal of preserving the rural character of the county. Though supportive of some growth, our communities are questioning the social and economic and environmental costs of sprawl. Real leadership works to balance a variety of interests and concerns. Good leaders work to find creative solutions to difficult problems. And they don't sacrifice the long term well-being of our communities to bumper sticker sloganeering and selfish, short term political advantage.

If the Defenders were smart, they would be helping to find a solution that balances the concerns of their members and other residents along Highway 15 with the broader goals shared by the majority of county residents.

If they were smart.

But the Defenders have chosen a different approach.

As far as anyone can tell so far, the Defenders oppose any and all zoning. They opposed all the environmental regulations included in the zoning ordinance draft. They even opposed wellhead protection legislation.

The Defenders have not made it easy to know what they really want. Mr. Mills has said, "We simply want to educate the people as to what's out there. And when the people of Frederick County speak and they are educated, Defenders will be satisfied."

Forgive me for being skeptical.

But most of what I have heard from the Defenders is hollow rhetoric - style without substance.

For example, these typical quotes from Mr. Mills:

"First of all, we like to think we're going to accomplish every one of our goals," including helping the electorate choose candidates based upon their and the county's needs."

"The county needs people to stand up for the people they believe will stand up for them," he said. "They should band together for the betterment of their future as well as the county's future. This county is theirs. ... If the county is torn apart by disruptive behavior from its leaders, it can have no positive consequences."

"To ride the fence to get elected is the greatest injustice that can be imposed on any voting public. ... The truth will set you free."

Okay. Fine. But what is the truth? What are their goals? What do they believe are the county's needs? How are they helping us to choose candidates?

Everyone supports the "betterment" of the county's future, but what does that mean to the Defenders? And how do they suggest we get there?

Going to the Defenders website for more information doesn't help answer those questions. The site contains virtually no useful or helpful information. Why haven't they outlined their goals? Where is the information to help educate us? The one section that was working, of course, was the form to make a donation and become a member.

If the Defenders primary focus is simply anti-government and anti-zoning, and they want to help elect a pro-development board, then they certainly are not defending my interests, and they are woefully out of step with the mainstream concerns of Frederick County residents and voters.

There are genuine and workable solutions to the apparent conflict between the concerns of individual property owners and the broader interests of our community.

The Defenders won't help find them, however, because they aren't looking for them.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at