Labeling of opinions only clouds the issue

Kai Hagen

March 24, 2005

Perhaps I should not have been surprised to see the letter from Barry Weller in last week's Gazette describing me as a member of "anti-growth forces" and calling me "selfish, elitist and hypocritical." Not because it's accurate -- which it isn't -- but because, as another reader wrote to me, it comes with the territory.

The territory he had in mind wasn't Frederick County. It was the realm of land development politics everywhere. And as the salesmen say in the opening tune of "The Music Man," you gotta know the territory.

He was telling me that the public debate about growth is often more of a war than a panel discussion, a war of words being waged on hundreds of political battlefields across the country. He was warning me that if I'm going to engage in the conflict, I should expect to become a target -- not my ideas or point of view, but me, personally.

Maybe so. Nevertheless, like anyone else, I'm not thrilled about being mislabeled and insulted.

I don't think I've ever met Barry Weller. But I wish he had chosen to engage in a thoughtful public discourse about some of the issues at hand, rather than dismissing real concerns and potential alternatives as irrelevant because some of us have not lived here our entire lives.

I also wish that before Mr. Weller accused me of being selfish, he would have been upfront about his own interests. Perhaps he was concerned that if he identified himself as a division sales manager for Drees Homes, his own motivation may have been suspect.

After all, Drees Homes, one of the top 25 builders in the nation and a platinum member of the Premier Club of the Frederick County Builders Association, is a large private, Midwestern company that only arrived here a year ago.

Having said that, however, important matters shaping our future should not be reduced to what Mr. Weller does for a living anymore than they should be reduced to whether or not someone was born here.

The people and communities of Frederick County will be the losers in the end if we can't find ways to communicate honestly about the choices we have to make.

And as much as some people on both sides would like to present those choices as black and white, it just isn't that simple.

But we aren't going to move beyond misleading labels and bumper sticker slogans as long as we let people use them. It ought to be an embarrassment for educated and successful members of the development community to keep characterizing so many of us as "no-growth" advocates.

That's not just pure politics, it's puerile politics. Black and white. And wrong all over.

No doubt, there are folks who advocate no growth. But whatever their preferences, the overwhelming majority of people understand that our location on the cusp of Washington, D.C. and Baltimore means that more people are going to come here. Perhaps a lot more people.

But even if every one of us believes and accepts that, it doesn't mean we're going to agree about the best way to shape our future.

There's a growing segment of our community that believes unrestrained or poorly planned sprawl is a recipe for disaster, threatening our quality of life and the financial well being of the county, our municipalities and the private sector. Sharing that concern doesn't enlist them in the "anti-growth forces."

They aren't being selfish to ask what approach to growth can promote fiscal health, protect natural resources, and build desirable communities. They know random development isn't going to create more options in housing and transportation, community amenities, and employment opportunities.

Frederick County can be influenced by our choices or it can be shaped by chance. In other words, we can just accept the kind of communities we get, or we can create the kind of communities we want. If that sort of practical and responsible thinking gets someone labeled "no growth," then "pro growth" really means growth with no limits.

Before you think that's an unfair definition, let me know the last time any local "pro-growth" development interests sponsored, or even just supported, any particular new ordinance or policy change that established some limits.

If the best path is somewhere between "no growth" and "unlimited growth," we're a lot more likely to find it if we can talk to each other without labels, insults, or personal attacks.

Maybe we have to make progress toward that end one small step at a time. In that spirit, I'd like to suggest a moratorium on calling anyone "no-growth" or "anti-growth" unless they define themselves that way.

It's a start.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at