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Montgomery town battles for bypass; Schaefer raises hope of making exception to Smart Growth plan


BROOKEVILLE -- A speck of a town in rural Montgomery County that knows a thing or two about war is spoiling for a fight with Gov. Parris N. Glendening over his highly publicized campaign against sprawl.

And the residents of tiny Brookeville have found a powerful ally who some suspect is looking for a gubernatorial fight of his own: William Donald Schaefer.

Brookeville became one of the first victims of Smart Growth policies last month when its long-planned $13 million bypass was cut from Glendening's fiscal 2000 capital budget. State planners felt detouring Route 97 around the town would encourage development in Montgomery, western Howard and lower Carroll counties.

But the town fathers believe the issue is safety, not sprawl, and will be among the first to challenge Glendening's decision.

"They probably thought, 'It's a small town, not a lot of people,' " said Al Gardner, president of the town Board of Commissioners. "They thought they could get away with it. Well, they can't."

Brookeville isn't much. Blink once and you're through it. But blink at your own peril.

The road, also known as Georgia Avenue, comes down out of Howard County like a fishing line with a hook on the end. The point of the hook sticks right in the center of town with the rest of Georgia Avenue dangling from the end.

About 13,000 times each day, commuters and truckers negotiate the sharp jog in the center of the town. Most are successful. But others cross the center line, drive up on people's lawns or terrify pedestrians.

The steady stream of traffic on its way to Washington has sliced the town in two and made walking on the street impossible, forcing residents to drive to visit a neighbor or to take a baby-sitter home.

A bypass, its supporters say, would funnel through-traffic onto two lanes west of town and turn the fishhook into the local road it was meant to be.

The 1 1/2-mile-long bypass has been on the area's master plan for decades and moved to the early planning stages several years ago. Support from residents living near its path was slow in coming, but it came.

Even though it might take eight years to build the bypass, residents thought they could begin dreaming of the day when the historic walking tours would no longer resemble a game of chicken.

Then came the governor's announcement.

"This is shameful," said Karen Montgomery, who lives in the curve of the fish hook and raises sheep. "Every time Brookeville is about to get a bypass, the bar gets raised."

Montgomery and others voiced their displeasure last week at a meeting with state highway and planning officials.

Neither side could move the other.

"I think [state planners] are putting blinders on because deep down they want to take a stand on Smart Growth and because our governor has become such a national figure on this issue," said state Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Howard County Republican whose district includes Brookeville.

The village of 48 households has plenty of political friends, including County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, members of the legislature who supported Smart Growth and now Schaefer, a member of the state Board of Public Works, which could be the avenue of appeal.

"You can make exceptions," said Schaefer, the former governor who, as the newly elected comptroller, sits on the three-member board with Glendening and State Treasurer Richard N. Dixon. "Duncan would know if this project is needed. If he tells me he will need it, I will vote for it."

Schaefer said he knows the community well, but volunteered, "I can come out and look at it and bring Mr. Dixon with me."

Duncan, a Democrat in his second term, has asked Glendening to review the decision of his planners.

"You can't cross the street today, and the projections show there will be a doubling in traffic by 2020," Duncan said. "If we don't get this bypass, we're going to destroy this town."

And, residents say, destroy a tiny piece of American history. Brookeville proudly notes that for one night during the War of 1812, it served as the nation's capital for President James Madison, whose home -- the White House -- was being burned by British soldiers.

The state has proposed three alternatives to a bypass: stop signs, a traffic light on Georgia Avenue or a small traffic circle.

Montgomery officials are leery of anything that won't solve the problem.

"It's a sticky wicket," acknowledged County Councilwoman Nancy H. Dacek, a Republican who represents the area. "If you accept an option, there's less pressure to get the job done right."

Duncan and McCabe say the Smart Growth policy may not have an appeals process built in. The attorney general is reviewing the legislation. If he rules it does not provide for appeals, they say, a bill will be filed to correct the oversight.

"I'm not taking this personally," said Duncan, who has had his share of run-ins with Glendening. "I just think they made a mistake."

Pub Date: 2/08/99

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