It's still not too late to save our Frederick

Kai Hagen

April 8, 2004

Once upon a time, Frederick County was a relatively isolated rural county, a long way from the two major urban areas "down the road." But things changed. Roads were improved. Cars were invented. Highways were constructed. And a few million new residents moved into the region.

What was once an infrequent journey across miles of farms and forest is now a high-speed commute through burgeoning suburbs made daily by tens of thousands of county residents, and thousands more who cross the county from points even farther west and north. In more ways than one, the distance isn't what it used to be.

Just a few decades ago, the nation's capital was a slowly growing city, not so far, not so close. That was then. Though Washington and Baltimore haven't gotten any closer, Frederick County is now part of what is known as the Washington-Baltimore Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area. This not-so-charmingly designated region is already home to almost 8 million people. And more are coming.

There's no denying Frederick County has been dramatically affected by all the changes beyond our border. Our future is intimately connected to population growth and political decisions we do not control.

Frederick County today is not what it was. And it is not what it will be. More changes are coming. Big changes.

Anyone driving down the road, or even just around the county, sees the changes every day. A new development here. A new business park there. Here a new road. There a new school. Before our eyes, the county is becoming a suburb.

As remarkable as these changes have been, the rate of change is even more so. Four years ago, Frederick County was home to 195,277 people. Projections by the Maryland Department of Planning are for 238,700 of us by 2010, 282,100 by 2020, and quite possibly 325,600 by 2030.

Depending on local choices and larger circumstances, those numbers may be a little higher or lower than reality. But we can assume they're in the ballpark.

It is said that geography is destiny. But while geography matters, it does not necessarily translate into predictable or unavoidable outcomes. Growth and change might be inevitable, but how it happens, and what it will be like to live here in a couple of decades isn't a done deal.

What's certain, however, is that if we continue to approach growth and development as most suburban and exurban counties have, in our "statistical metropolitan area" and across the country, we're going to look like most of them, and experience most of the same problems.

One of the benefits, though, of being farther out than counties closer to Washington and Baltimore is that it isn't already too late. We still have time to learn from their history, and that of other, often indistinguishable, suburbs everywhere. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of examples of what we can expect if we continue with business as usual. If we are going to aspire to something more -- something better -- we have to take a more aggressively creative look at the exceptions out there.

Better examples are out there.

But there are good reasons why those examples are generally exceptions.

In order to do something different, we have to do more than point to a few alternative models. There has to be something here strong enough to resist the momentum and break with traditional approaches.

That can't happen without more than the usual amount of citizen involvement in the process of planning our future.

We don't have to leave it all to someone else. We can't just wait until a local development controversy motivates us to attend a public meeting in Winchester Hall. We can't wait for local elections every four years to swing the pendulum back and forth a little bit.

We don't all have to become experts, or find the time to attend dozens of meetings. But we do need a few more of us to believe we can make a difference worth making.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at