When growth occurs, Frederick life changes

Kai Hagen

March 10, 2005

A friend noted recently that I've been writing a lot about growth.

No doubt, I've written a few columns focused on growth in Frederick County. I've also written about a fair number of subjects that aren't about growth, such as snow, school lunches, voting machines, cicadas, volunteerism, non-partisan elections and the residency requirement for mayoral candidates in Frederick.

Having said that, however, a review of what I have written about makes it clear that many aspects of life are affected by growth, especially the rate of growth and the choices we make about how we grow.

More than a century ago, John Muir, perhaps this country's most famous naturalist, said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

Muir might have said that long ago and far away, but it applies perfectly to modern day Frederick County.

When we take a look at so many seemingly distinct issues in Frederick County, we find them all "hitched" to the broader issues of growth. So consistently so, in fact, that it can be hard to imagine what it would be like to write about those subjects in a county that wasn't experiencing rapid growth.

Education is a top priority. But the discussion here is dominated by serious challenges imposed by rapid growth. Crowded classrooms and schools. Portable classrooms. Impact fees. New school construction. Frequent redistricting. Less school choice. Expanding budgets.

Everybody gripes about traffic. The same job gets farther away from the same house as the same commute worsens. Predictably awful traffic jams keep some customers away from malls. Scenic country roads become narrow and dangerous byways. Route 15 becomes a deathtrap without funding to replace at-grade intersections with overpasses and ramps. Even when we arrive, parking is an issue.

Excellent and abundant parks are a mainstay of high-quality communities. But our youth sports leagues are competing for access to too few, overused fields. Our park systems are growing, but we're unable to meet the minimum standard for neighborhood, community and district park acres per resident. And many people have few local places to walk or play beyond their yard or a busy street with no sidewalks.

Writing about agriculture in Frederick County often means writing about the loss of farmland. The county's comprehensive plan calls for preserving a minimum of 100,000 acres, which needs to be done in large blocks that can support the local farm economy and preserve the rural character of those areas. We'll never meet that goal at the rate we're going.

Other examples are far too numerous to describe in any detail here.

The cost and quality of emergency services, police and fire protection. Water quality issues affecting the Monocacy River, miles of streams and vulnerable groundwater. Water quantity issues. Water restrictions. Expensive new pipelines. Possible new impoundments.

It's difficult to write about the nature of Frederick County without considering the threats to our overall biological health and diversity. The loss of forests and wetlands, and the fragmentation of wildlife habitat. Light pollution and the disappearance of the night sky.

Suddenly, affordable housing is a concern for the professional middle class and two-income families. County and municipal finances are strained. Many interests compete for tighter budgets. New fees and taxes are always on the table.

Writing about any of these things and plenty more means writing about growth. It's unavoidable.

But is the rate of growth, and, more to the point, the particular way we are going about it, just as unavoidable?

Why does it feel radical to suggest that the growth we are absorbing happen in a manner that in every way possible is to the benefit of those of us who already live here?

Writing about growth, for me, means working to expose the incomplete and flawed values of the growth machine reshaping our communities. It means exploring how this growth can be grounded in shared, common-sense values.

It means exposing the myth-makers who masquerade as servants of commonly held values and the public interest while gaming the system to serve a set of narrow and short-term interests.

Our continuing growth crisis reflects a disconnect between the kind of community we want to live in and what developers will re-create if we leave it up to them.

I read an essay recently in which the author recalled a Buddhist saying, "The task before us is very urgent, so we must slow down."

You don't have to be a Buddhist to appreciate common sense.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at