Appearances matter in the political arena

Kai Hagen

January 22, 2004

Obviously, elected representatives should avoid illegal and unethical behavior. But it's also important to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Appearances begin with the facts we see on the surface of events.

In 2002, Frederick County re-elected two incumbent members of the Board of County Commissioners and elected three new members. The re-elected incumbents, Jan Gardner and John "Lennie" Thompson, were well-known to voters, and were re-elected despite being targeted by development interests.

It's an understatement to say Gardner and Thompson are not cut from the same cloth -- different parties, different styles, different priorities. What they share most is a cautious approach to growth, and concerns about the impact of unrestrained growth on schools, traffic and taxes, as well as the quality and cost of basic services such as water and sewer, and police and fire protection.

In fact, Thompson received the most votes, while spending far less than the others, and with a simple campaign message: "If Developers Win, You Lose."

The three new members of the board, John Lovell, Mike Cady and Bruce Reeder, were considered pro-development candidates. That wasn't their message, though. John Lovell called for "measured growth." Mike Cady said, "a balance needs to be sought." And Bruce Reeder said he will "Work to manage growth and provide the right balance for homes, jobs and infrastructure."

Those three, who comprise a majority on the board, received substantial contributions from developers and real estate interests, and outspent other candidates (except for Charles Jenkins, an employee of Ausherman Homes who nearly won the fifth spot). All three are members of Defenders of Citizens Rights, a recently formed, well-financed, local organization that opposes smart growth principles and advocates a anti-zoning philosophy. The group opposes most reasonable restraints on land use, and considers our adequate public facilities ordinance "the real problem that Frederick County faces."

Fast forward: On Jan. 6, the commissioners voted 3-2 to rezone 138.7 acres near Ballenger Creek for a development of as many as 763 homes in an area where schools and roads are already crowded. At the hearing, representatives for the developer, Ausherman Development Corporation, said the zoning change was "in furtherance of the public interest."

Now, Ausherman is a fine homebuilder, and it may be that the project, which includes affordable housing and recreation areas, is appropriate there -- eventually. It's also true, however, that the developer attempted to bolster support for it by saying the number of houses in the pipeline is "dangerously low," and contending there could be room in the schools, as required by the adequate public facilities ordinance, if the county redistricted, forcing some students to be bused to other schools.

When Commissioner Gardner attempted to challenge the accuracy of the claims about the number of homes in the pipeline, she referred to the best information available, and expressed frustration that she was not able to get more up-to-date numbers. Nevertheless, in spite of general agreement that there are roughly 18,000 new homes approved throughout the county, Commissioner Cady moved to stop the discussion and exclude the numbers from the record. He did so, with support from Commissioners Lovell and Reeder.

When Gardner attempted to question redistricting and busing students to distant schools for the benefit of developers, Cady moved to block discussion about school capacity for the site. And did so, again with Lovell and Reeder. Not before an erroneous assertion by Cady, however, that the nature of state funding means the county schools have to be overcrowded to get our share of state money for new schools.

While the approval is only the first phase of the process, and the development must pass the adequate public facilities ordinance review before construction, the rezoning bestows a practical inevitability to the project.

Commissioners Gardener and Thompson were not attempting to deny the rezoning, but rather to delay the decision in order to engage more thorough discussion, informed by more accurate information.

In spite of the concerns of the two senior commissioners, however, and of every resident who waited for their three minutes at the microphone, Cady, Lovell and Reeder voted to approve the application.

In 2002, developers made a business investment when they supported the campaigns of the new commissioners. By all appearances, it seems like they're getting a good return on their investment.

Representing Ausherman Homes, Mark Friis, chairman of the Frederick County Builders Association's legislative committee, asked: "What is the public interest behind our application?"

Good question. Certainly, the public interest isn't served by the sort of process Winchester Hall witnessed this month.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at