Growth control is focus of Ecker-Gray debate


Sounding a familiar theme at a candidates forum yesterday, Democrat Susan Gray charged Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker with placing development interests above residents' desires.

The county will be hard-pressed to pay for the schools, roads and other infrastructure necessary to support its overly ambitious plan for growth, said Ms. Gray, a longtime growth control advocate from Highland. The money spent on improvements will benefit mainly "a handful of interests" that have a financial stake in the county's growth, she said.

"What I have found, especially in the last four years, is that communities have had things done to them that are not in their best interests," Ms. Gray told about 100 senior citizens at the debate sponsored by the Howard chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).

"I want to install a philosophy in government that puts people first," she said.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Ecker touted plans to expand services for seniors, fiscal management that turned a $23 million shortfall into a $20 million surplus over his four-year term and policies that have halved the county's growth rate since the mid-1980s. But he didn't let Ms. Gray's charges about coziness with developers go unanswered.

"There's a lot of misinformation being given," he said. "When you get half the truth, you've got to be careful you might be getting the wrong half."

Howard residents receive good service from the county government, he said, but that doesn't mean they'll always get the answer they want.

"What has been done and what will continue to be done is what is best for the entire county, not one particular group," Mr. Ecker said.

The forum also featured a debate between two state delegates -- Republican Martin G. Madden and Democrat Virginia M. Thomas -- who are running for state Senate's District 13, which includes east Columbia and southeastern Howard County.

John W. Taylor, Democratic candidate for County Council in District 5, was to debate Charles C. Feaga, but the Republican incumbent didn't appear. Patricia Holmes, Mr. Feaga's campaign treasurer, said he had intended to attend the debate but missed it because of a miscommunication with AARP.

Mr. Taylor is a frequent ally of Ms. Gray's in opposing major development projects, such as the 682-acre Waverly Woods II, a mini-village planned for Marriottsville. Rezoning was approved last year that will allow higher-density residential and commercial development on land originally zoned for rural, large-lot development.

Mr. Taylor echoed Ms. Gray's concerns about growth and its potentially adverse effects on education, transportation, public safety and the environment. He said the recession did more to manage growth than county officials.

"We're going to pay more to get less," he said. "Am I saying shut off the tap? No, I'm not. We just have to plan better."

Taxes also were an issue yesterday, with Ms. Gray and Mr. Taylor warning that residents may have to pay more to support growth.

Mr. Ecker said Maryland's economy still is "very shaky" and that he could not predict whether the state would pass along cuts to the counties as it addresses projected budget shortfalls.

"Hopefully we won't have to increase taxes," he said.

Mr. Madden criticized Ms. Thomas for supporting tax increases in 1992 to solve state budget problems, saying he opposed them and would vote against similar proposals. The tax increases hurt families and limit economic growth, he said.

Ms. Thomas countered that she supported certain measures that affected relatively few -- such as tax increases on cigarettes and the wealthy -- to help avoid harmful cuts in services, including nutrition sites for the elderly.

She emphasized that she had sponsored bills to help keep seniors in their homes and out of institutions and that Mr. Madden had voted against several bills intended to help the elderly.

Several seniors interviewed after the debate at the Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia agreed with the agendas of the growth-control candidates.

"I think they're on the right track, not that we're against growth, but against rapid growth," said Esther Zacharius, 72, a Highland resident.

Her husband, Robert, said he was concerned that county officials are being short-sighted.

"The idea seems to be to build up as fast as they can, make as much money as they can and leave aside a few green areas," said the retired plant biochemist. "There's no real plan for 20 years from now."

Janet Stevens, 59, also of Highland, said she was undecided on candidates but agreed with Ms. Gray on at least one point. "I see too much growth that will benefit only a few and drastically affect a lot of people in the county," she said.

Others said they were satisfied with Mr. Ecker's leadership. "I think he's done a good job," said Jackie Fairfull, 77, of Columbia. "I think he's down-to-earth."

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