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Thank one guy who kept growth orderly

Thank one guy who kept growth orderly

June 30, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Thirty years ago in Janaury 1973 the Washington County Commissioners approved the first county-wide zoning ordinance. That may seem like a ho-hum development now, when everyone who doesn't like their neighbor's plans for a backyard storage shed can quote the law, but in 1973 it was a big deal.

The law took years of planning and a ton of compromises to enact. The farm community, much more politically potent then than now, went along only after the commissioners agreed that 26 "principal permitted uses" would be allowed on land in agricultural zones.

For many others, the ordinance was viewed as an assault on the basic American freedom to do whatever one wanted to do with one's property. "Communism" was only one of the terms used to describe it. And someone mailed Donald Frush, then the county's planning chief, a folded piece of toilet tissue containing a wad of something he was pretty sure wasn't chewing gum.

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Frush knew that to succeed, the ordinance would have to be enforced fairly and consistently. To accomplish that, he hired two young fellows, Robert Grahl and Paul Prodonovich. Grahl is no longer with the county, but Prodonovich retires today after 30 years' service with the county, many of those as director of permits and inspections.

The hiring of Grahl, 18 and just out of high school, caused the most stir in the courthouse, where some employees toyed with the idea of circulating a petition protesting his hiring. Grahl cooled the controversy by taking a $2,000 pay cut until he could "prove himself" to county officials. He quit in June 1974 when the raise wasn't forthcoming.

The hirings were resented because at the time, some felt that the new county jobs should go to older men, with families, who were more in need of work.

That would be an irrelevant consideration today, but at the time county policy didn't even require the government to advertise jobs publicly. Though the Equal Employment Opportunity Act had been passed the year before, the county didn't even have to give the federal government a breakdown of workers by race and sex until October 1973.

Prior to that, the county commissioners acknowledged, many jobs were filled by department heads with friends, relatives and political allies - easy enough to do since at the time the county had no personnel director, no rigid pay scale and no tests workers had to pass to get promoted.

In September of 1973 Commissioners' President Lem Kirk said he saw "nothing wrong" with the practice, saying that one of the fringe benefits of holding office was to "take care of your friends to a certain extent."

Commissioner Calvin "Mike" Shank objected to the practice, saying that some had been passed over who should have been promoted.

The county's unfettered personnel system, in which electoral victors got to pass out the spoils, would soon be gone, in part because county employees themselves were agitating for a change. But Frush could not wait for the old system to die before he hired the inspectors, at what now seems like the paltry sum of $8,000 per year.

Frush, now deceased, told me then that he needed people who were not tied into the "old boy" network here and who would do inspections and enforce the rules fairly and consistently.

For Prodonovich, it was not always easy. One property owner who objected to an inspection held him at gunpoint for more than an hour, firing over his head several times with a high-powered rifle.

In the mid-1980s, Prodonovich risked the ire of the Ku Klux Klan, holding up a permit for a rally planned for the Smoketown area of Mt. Lena Road until organizers got approval from the Boonsboro Fire Department to burn a cross.

So what does Prodonovich think about those days and how far the county has come? He wouldn't grant me an interview, in part because he'd already turned down a reporter's request to talk and didn't feel it would be fair to say "yes" to me.

I respect his decision, even as I regret that he is declining to share his own thoughts, for one important reason. Those residents who believe that zoning and land-use planning is important need to know that enacting it was not a matter of just taking a vote and sending out inspectors.

It involved hiring good people who would willingly go into situations where people were hostile to what they were doing. The zoning ordinance approved 30 years ago was not perfect, but by and large it has worked to promote orderly development, keeping sawmills and machine shops out of residential developments. It did not happen by accident, but because of the hard work of people like Paul Prodonovich.

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