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The yin, yang of progress


FREDERICK -- After years of rapid growth, much of Frederick County doesn't look like itself anymore and, more important, it doesn't feel the same, either.

This is the part of growth you can't touch:

Longtime residents say they can no longer count on walking into certain restaurants and seeing someone they know.

An Irish pub gets so fed up with the growing number of obnoxious cell-phone users blabbing at lunchtime that it bans the gadgets.

The local newspapers still chronicle Little League results and fishermen's prize catches -- but there are also reports of tensions between police and blacks in Frederick City, about an escort service that may have counted city officials as customers, about two county school principals accused of soliciting prostitutes.

Like the weathered gravestones in its 18th-century cemeteries, Frederick County's once-rural identity is eroding.

And after two decades of population explosion, many longtime residents are not only fretting about finite water supplies and disappearing farmland, they're downright edgy about shifts in their lives that are much harder to pinpoint -- longer waits in the grocery store checkout line, fewer people invested enough in their communities to volunteer for blood drives and bake sales, more time in traffic picking up kids.

Says social worker Cornelia Reynolds, who's lived in the county for 21 years: "It doesn't look like itself anymore. To get from one side to the other, you have to sit in traffic. The seams are bursting."

Not that growth hasn't had its upside. New businesses have brought jobs, broadening the tax base and allowing the county and the city to provide better services and attract restaurants, merchants and the arts.

But many residents are finding that the yin and yang of progress means that for every benefit, there's nearly always a potential drawback.

Take cell phones. In January, the city approved an ordinance that cell phone towers could be erected discreetly inside steeples or faux chimneys.

By then, Jennifer Dougherty, who moved here in 1987 from Washington and opened an Irish pub in the Carroll Creek neighborhood, had already decided she didn't want to replicate the common big-city phenomenon of phones jangling every few moments at patrons' tables.

"We want people to feel comfortable and not put on airs and say, 'I'm important and I have a cellular telephone, and watch me take this call,'" Dougherty says of her one-woman stand.

The city's entire downtown, with its charming church spires and 139-year-old town hall, is facing similar questions about whether it will be transformed by its own popularity.

The migration to the county has included waves of relatively well-off emigrants from Montgomery County and Washington fleeing traffic congestion and higher taxes, but looking to maintain an upscale lifestyle by settling in Frederick City's trendy historic area.

While city officials recently boasted about the first homes offered for sale in the million-dollar range, others fear the place is becoming too elite.

"The values in downtown are high, and people like living there, so that's healthy," says Ron Young, the mayor from 1974 to 1990. "It's tough from another standpoint, though, in that it forces some people out that can't afford it anymore."

Frederick County's population swelled by about one-third during the 1990s to nearly 200,000. Some of the newcomers commute to Washington and Baltimore, while others work locally at businesses, such as Bechtel Power, that recently located or expanded in the area.

And as new homes and office parks crop up, many longtime residents are like old grads who return to their high school and don't recognize it.

In a word, that's jarring, says Kimberly Lanegran, assistant political science professor at Frederick's Hood College. "A lot of our memories are tied up with place, and we feel a sense of loss as our landscape changes around us," she says.

Some would like to turn back the clock.

In the second half of the coming school year, the county may become the state's first to ask public school ninth-graders to sign cards pledging to abstain from casual sex. The proposal, by parents on a school board advisory panel, aims to reduce the incidence of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Frederick still lags behind neighboring, more urbanized Montgomery County in per capita rates of some -- though not all -- such diseases and is determined to keep it that way.

In other ways, too, Frederick remains a throwback. The county has relatively few homicides and a historic city with a safe, walkable downtown. Nearly 90 percent of the county's residents are white. The county's home ownership rate is 76 percent, well above the state average.

But change is the constant concern.

"Since we're growing, we're starting into the big-city life," says Lucia Kline, president of the Urbana High School Parent-Teacher-Student Association and an advocate of the abstinence pledge cards. "That part of it we don't like. We don't want to be touched by that part of it."

Kline was born and raised in the county, and her father still lives on the farm where she grew up.

"Growth is about the good things and the bad things," she says. "It's good having wonderful new professionals close by, and the theater and the restaurants. But it breaks my heart whenever I see a farm go."

Farms aren't the only mainstay threatened by growth. Paul Lentz, a member of the Izaak Walton League, a conservation group, hopes there will still be room for his gun club near Mount Airy.

As more urbanites move into the county, gun enthusiasts fear the climate will turn less tolerant to ranges and hunting.

But Lentz also has a more pressing concern: development of 12 new homes adjacent to the club is slated to begin soon.

"There wouldn't be any buffer," says Lentz, who raised his objections at a county Planning Commission meeting this month. "We're talking maybe 1 1/2 football fields between the nearest lot and the shooting line. Inevitably, there are going to be some people not happy with the gun club, and there will be conflict."

That same development faces another challenge, too. Environmental lawyer Steven Quarles, who owns a 250-acre horse farm, gave protest at the same meeting because he's afraid that the homes will disturb old burial sites.

It's not just entrenched residents such as Quarles showing up at planning meetings. It's often the county's newcomers who seem to want to protect Frederick most -- from change, from growth, from transplants like themselves.

"We all open our arms to them, and now they want to close their arms to everybody else," says Richard L. Stup, a county planning commissioner.

"People move here for lower taxes, and yet they demand the same services they had in the jurisdiction they moved from. They move here with three vehicles and make it more crowded. The people who yell the loudest are sometimes part of the problem," he says.

Perhaps the best way to handle the influx of humanity is to take their money -- legally, of course.

Among those adjusting nicely is Charlie Seymour, owner of Urbana's Turning Point Inn.

The inn is next to the Villages of Urbana, a 3,500-home development under construction with townhouses starting at about $150,000 and single-family homes ranging up to $300,000 or more. Seymour regularly greets new arrivals from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Montgomery County -- all over.

He's upgraded his liquor menu and opened a wine company targeting the newcomers as customers, and he's made financial peace, at least, with the all changes swirling through Frederick County.

"I've lived here 30-something years, and I have mixed feelings about the growth," Seymour says. "But the faster they build -- from a business standpoint -- the better off I'll be."

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