The Carroll County Commissioners open their twice-weekly meetings with heads bowed in prayer. Robin Bartlett Frazier began a recent session with words from Joshua in the Old Testament and her hope that the board would "be strong and of good courage in Jesus' name."
Not everyone is saying "amen."
At the same meeting, Union Bridge resident Judy Smith publicly criticized the board. "You are elected officials," she said. "You should not display your religion publicly."
Public prayer is just one of the issues that is defining this five-member, all-Republican board, all but one a newcomer to governance. They were swept into office on the tea party wave last year after a campaign that emphasized property rights and an opposition to many environmental initiatives, affordable housing and public transportation in a county where more than half the workforce commutes to jobs outside its borders.
"We don't want subways or metro buses," said Richard Rothschild, one of the new commissioners. "They are conduits for crime. That's not politically correct, but it is factually substantiated."
Many of the positions espoused by the new leadership — members call themselves the "Fighting 59th" commission — have rankled moderates in this conservative county.
Some are concerned that the county's positions on housing and planning will jeopardize crucial state and federal funding. But the commission's defenders say its members are taking up an important fight over land use restrictions that are placed on local governments.
"This is about the pendulum swinging the other way and people fighting government efforts to dictate how and where to live your life," said Del. Michael Smigiel, an Eastern Shore Republican and a leader in the legislature's tea party caucus. "Local government is best done locally. Why quash ideas just because they are not the state's?"
Six months into their first term, the members of the 59th board in county history have eliminated the environmental department and their own daily expense allowances. They also have undertaken a rewrite of the master plan that would delete all references to Smart Growth, Maryland's nationally recognized system to combat sprawl and direct development to established communities that have schools, roads and other infrastructure.
Carroll County has had a rocky relationship with Smart Growth. The local philosophy on development is rooted in property rights, and has often run afoul of state goals.
Rothschild, who represents the rural, western county and is leading the effort to rewrite the growth plan, says state standards are "incompatible with our constitutional rights."
"People came here to escape Smart Growth congestion and urbanization," said Rothschild, who wears a Fighting 59th pin, with the American flag and an eagle, on his suit coat. "We don't want Section 8 or government-sponsored low-income housing or Annapolis telling us how to live. We mow our grass with tractors. We don't want the pernicious problems associated with denser development."
Julia Walsh Gouge, who served for 20 years as a Carroll commissioner before losing a bid for a sixth term in the Republican primary last year, said the new board is not fighting for residents.
"What they are fighting against are all the mandates," she said. "If they don't follow the rules, they won't get any state or federal money."
Gouge recalled that Carroll's opposition to state initiatives during Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration resulted in the loss of state funding and delays in many school and roads projects.
Carroll, which has long directed growth in and around its eight municipalities, has taken responsible steps in the past, state planning officials said. The county has been a national leader in land preservation and has permanently safeguarded about 60,000 acres from development.
The county could save as much as $1.6 billion in road construction projects by clustering houses, building more closely to existing communities and following other state guidelines for growth, said Andrew Ratner, a spokesman for the state Department of Planning. "The question is not just environmental but fiscal sustainability," he said.
Rothschild is aware of the fiscal constraints the state could impose and said the county "is trying to remain as compliant as we can. But our citizens expect us to maintain the character of our community. Our rural, agricultural lifestyle is on the endangered species list."
The early months of the commissioners' term have largely been guided by a list of 10 governing principals, including their support for less intrusive government, individual property rights and "open conversations in plain English."
The officials make up Carroll's first board with five members, and each represents a newly carved district. They have set term limits for themselves, promised lower taxes and voiced opposition to state and federal mandates, "particularly those incompatible with citizens' rights," Rothschild said.
Carroll officials were among the first county leaders to publicly denounce Maryland's new law providing in-state tuition rates to some illegal immigrants. Frederick's commissioners said they were following Carroll's lead when they expressed opposition to the measure, and a majority of the Baltimore County Council later issued a statement in support of a petition to repeal the law.
"It shows we are not the lone wolves out there barking in the wind," said Commissioner Haven Shoemaker.
The strident rhetoric, particularly on development issues, has raised concerns among environmental advocates, Democrats — long the minority party in Carroll — and even moderate Republicans.
"All this stuff sounds like we are on a different planet," said Jacqueline S. Jones, chair of Carroll's Democratic Central Committee.
The commissioners' critics are particularly concerned about the board's opposition to affordable housing and public transportation.
"Affordable housing is not the government's responsibility, said Frazier, the only commissioner with previous experience. "The free market determines the cost of housing."
In one of its first official acts, the board terminated its membership in the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, which Frazier said "chokes us to death with regulations." She has called Maryland's model for improving the Chesapeake Bay "filled with unachievable goals" and said it is based "on poor science that is not proven."
Dru Schmidt-Perkins, director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland, an advocacy group for preservation and sustainable growth, has seen a draft of the master plan rewrite and called it "the path to destruction."
"If you only build McMansions on large lots, you will pollute more, fragment your farmland and require more infrastructure," she said. "Carroll has … wonderful towns. Its future is critical to the whole state. Its current one-way mentality is not politically, socially or environmentally smart."
In the late 1990s, residents, particularly those in South Carroll who were dealing with crowded schools and congested roads, insisted on growth controls. They defeated efforts to turn Piney Run, a favorite recreational spot in their community, into a drinking water source that would spur more growth.
"We saved the lake," said Ross Dangel of Eldersburg. "Now we have to save the county from sprawl."
Dangel is a Republican and former chairman of the Freedom Area Citizens Council, which represents communities in South Carroll, the county's most-populated area. He feels disenfranchised and resents "the pedantic stuff," such as the commissioners' practice of using only Christian prayer at their meetings.
"This board is making decisions and then explaining it to us like we are not smart enough," he said
Gouge, and fellow Republicans Dean Minnich and Perry Jones, who were elected in 2002 along with Maryland's first Republican governor in decades, succeeded in curbing rampant growth. They imposed a yearlong moratorium and enacted an ordinance directing development to areas that could meet the demand for schools, water and roads.
"We have had a few years of sensible growth, but this new board is already ridiculing what we did," Gouge said.
The county's planning director position has been vacant since the five members took office in December, which to opponents illustrates the county's isolation.
"What planner would want to come here and deconstruct all the solid work already done?" asked Neil Ridgely, the former director of sustainability, who resigned before the new board came into office.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun