Candidates zero in on growth


If conventional wisdom is correct, developers and pro-growth county bureaucrats should be quaking in their boots at the prospect of Susan B. Gray winning the county executive's race this fall, and John W. Taylor and Gary P. Prestianni gaining seats on the County Council.

That's true of her candidacy, to a point, said Ms. Gray, one of the three growth-control activists running for office this year.

"Some of them should be. The majority of them shouldn't be," she said.

If elected, she vows to fight those in the "inside circle" of developers and the county officials "mixed up" with them, a group that she says stands in the way of citizens trying to shape county growth policies.

"If you aren't in the inside circle, you might as well not even try," said Ms. Gray, who must defeat former Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue-Ellen Hantman in the Sept. 13 primary in order to face Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker in the Nov. 8 general election.

The pace of growth in the county, and the frustration felt by activists who recently have lost battles against large residential and commercial projects and new highways, have prompted the activists to seek office themselves.

Although the three do not consider themselves one-issue candidates, they acknowledge that growth is the issue that got them involved in politics and that growth has a profound effect on other issues.

Ms. Gray warned that if she is elected, development companies, such as the Rouse Co., Security Development and Brantly Development, and land-planning firms, such as Riemer, Muegge & Co., will no longer get what she considers special treatment from the Department of Planning & Zoning or other county agencies.

And she promised to fire the directors of the planning and zoning and public works departments, along with the head of the county law office -- all Ms. Gray's opponents in her past struggles over county growth.

Mr. Taylor, a fellow Highland resident who ran a close Republican primary challenge to incumbent Republican Charles C. Feaga and is running now as a Democrat, is more subdued about his vision of the future.

In fact, Mr. Taylor has not endorsed Ms. Gray.

"I'm happy that she's entered the race, but . . . I expect to remain fully focused on my campaign," said Mr. Taylor, who is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination in the race against Mr. Feaga.

On Thursday, Mr. Taylor attended the Howard County Home Builders' Candidate Breakfast, in part to assure the development community that they need not fear him.

"I will be representing them and everyone else, but I won't be giving them any special favors," Mr. Taylor said in an interview later last week.

But he added that "the builders in Howard County may be unnecessarily worried about me. I believe that a certain level of growth and development is healthy. It's just that too much of a good thing may be bad."

What the county needs, Mr. Taylor said, is a "happy medium" of about 2,500 new dwelling units each year, which is not far from the county's current growth policy.

Although he said he would avoid hasty moves that would result in a severe loss of jobs, Mr. Taylor said the county needs to be prepared for a growth spurt if interest rates drop back to about 7 percent.

And he said that the county's economic development efforts should be beefed up to support the growth allowed by the 1992 and 1993 comprehensive rezonings that he fought so vociferously.

Mr. Prestianni, who lives on the edge of the 2nd Councilmanic District in Jessup, points out that he, too, has a different perspective than the two Highland residents derisively called "no-growthers" by Mr. Ecker and other county officials.

Mr. Ecker has in fact publicly backed Mr. Prestianni's opponent in the Republican primary, Board of Appeals member Evelyn Tanner. They are running for the seat occupied by Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, a Democrat, who faces former planning board chairwoman Kathryn Mann in the primary.

"I am in the construction trade. I'm an electrician," he said. "It's a paycheck for a lot of people, including me and my father before me."

But Mr. Prestianni said he is concerned that county growth-control policies let large developers use up yearly housing allocations, shutting out smaller builders.

Even if the three candidates soften their images on growth, their opponents are likely to fight back with the same aggressive tactics the growth-control activists have used.

Mr. Feaga, not known for fiery statements, responded sharply to the thought of the growth-control activists' taking office.

"If the zero-growth advocates would be elected in the upcoming election, the implementation of their policies would kill business in the county, and Howard County could see greater deficits than they saw following the [building permit] moratorium in 1989," Mr. Feaga said. "With the potential reduced revenues, every teacher, police officer, fire fighter, . . . county employee and citizen in Howard County should be shaking in their boots."

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