Hindsight is 20/20 in Frederick

September 04, 2005|By DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ


First, there were plans to build a new school every year for a decade to accommodate a burgeoning student population.

Then came the influx of residential and commercial developers, followed by distribution and warehouse companies, in search of cheaper land than could be found in Washington, D.C., or Baltimore. Then came the traffic problems and the affordable-housing issues.

Before the trend spread westward into Washington County, planners and officials from virtually every level of Frederick County were forced to confront the complications that came with a tide of development that never quite let up, but has begun to slacken, officials involved with Frederick County's growth issues said.


"I think the real substantial growth in Frederick County started in the 1980s or early 1990s," said Ray Barnes, director of facilities services for Frederick County Public Schools. "We approached, practically, a new elementary school every year for the next 10 years. I think it was anticipated. I don't think that, let's say in the mid-1980s, they were expecting as much growth."

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Frederick County's population climbed to 195,277 in 2000, up 30 percent from the 1990 census. That figure increased by 9.4 percent to 213,662, according to estimated 2003 figures from the Census Bureau.

James Gugel, chief comprehensive planner for the Frederick County Planning Department, said the growth has come in fits and starts, tied to the economy. He said he believes much of that development has gone as planned.

"If you look at the residential development activity, it's kind of been up and down over the last 20 years," Gugel said. "I think, for the most part, the county has had the ability to channel that development through the comprehensive plan."

Marie Keegin, executive director of the Frederick County Office of Economic Development, said that as the pace of development began to peak, the county saw a growing level of interest from distribution and warehouse employers attracted to the area because of the lower prices for land and access to the interstates.

Aided by the proximity to Fort Detrick, the county slowly began to see a shift from such employers to higher wage, higher tech companies, Keegin said.

"The right mix of businesses is always a challenge," she said. "Following the distribution has come biotech manufacturing, manufacturing in general ... it's kind of an evolution."

Gugel said the county has steered much of its development toward its designated growth areas, including Urbana and, more recently, around Lake Linganore. Still, he said, there has been friction between those who want the county to pull the plug on further development and those who wish to see more development and the creation of more affordable housing units. Striking a balance between the two has not been easy, he said.

"From the public's perception, it's probably stood out of balance, and from the business community, it's out of balance from the other side," Gugel said. "Some people still want it to be more strict, and some want us to loosen it a bit."

Building schools

As the county's overall population has grown, so has its student population, Barnes said.

Frederick County Public Schools opened four new schools in the span of two years, starting with Heather Ridge and Hillcrest Elementary in 1988, as it found itself enrolling about 1,000 new students annually. Through last year, it went on to open 17 more schools and to undertake additions to 14 more before the increases in its student body tapered off to 500 new students this year.

Barnes said the intensity of the problem forced the school system not only to install temporary classrooms and set priorities for project funding, but also to accept, on a communitywide basis, that for the immediate future, the days of modest capital budgets were over.

"Once the growth spurt hit, the funding culture had to change," Barnes said. "There was, obviously, a need to invest in portable classrooms because the county didn't have the money to invest in permanent buildings. I think we did the best we could under the circumstances. What we did best was our turnaround on new school construction toward where some of our most serious overcrowding issues were."

Moving forward, the new challenge is balancing future growth with the need to renovate and modernize some of the school system's older buildings and outdated infrastructure, Barnes said. The school system has been seeking $400 million as part of its six-year capital improvement program, but in recent years has been limited to an average of $250 million from its mix of county and state funds, he said.

Frederick County Sheriff's Office Cpl. Jennifer Bailey said that as the county's population has increased, so has the level of crime within its borders. Over just the past five years, the office grew from 60 deputies to 163, with eight more positions recently authorized to be filled in the near future, she said.

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