Incumbent Dell says race is 'a tough one to call'


No one entered this year's Carroll commissioners race with less fanfare than Republican Donald I. Dell.

He quietly filed his candidacy paperwork hours before the deadline, without calling a news conference or producing testimonials from powerful supporters.

This might have seemed normal for a shy dairy farmer, but Dell is also a three-term incumbent and one of the county's best-known political names.

He has long embodied such contradictions.

He loves governing but hates campaigning. At 77, he's the oldest regular denizen of the county offices, but he bounds up the stairs while most ride the elevator. He's a farmer who cherishes open space, but he can't abide any government that would prevent a farmer from selling his land to a developer.

Some see him as an inscrutable figure, and he likes that, often smiling when told that someone can't discern his motivation.

Waiting until the last possible day to say whether he would run for re-election, he kept many people guessing. "But I never had any idea I didn't want to run," he said.

Many county political observers, including some former supporters, predict that Dell won't win a fourth term because he's made too many enemies with his cantankerous replies to critics. Though none would say so on the record, several influential Republicans privately say they urged him not to run.

Dell seems wary about Tuesday's primary.

"I honestly don't know what's going to happen," he said. "It's a tough one to call. If I don't win, I'll be disappointed but at the same time, I might be relieved. The job does take a lot of personal time."

Despite harsh criticism of his stances on growth and water issues from South Carroll residents, state officials and county Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, Dell is running on a record he believes is commendable.

He said the commissioners have controlled development when they could, preserved thousands of acres of farmland, spent plenty of money building new schools and settled innumerable small problems that often get overlooked in the political hubbub.

Dell is a seventh-generation county resident and lifelong dairyman whose house near Westminster is within sight of the farm he handed down to his sons. He ran for commissioner in 1982, believing farmers needed a greater voice in a government that in 1978 had reduced their property rights through mass rezoning. He lost twice before winning in 1990 with the slogan "Keep it Country," a reference to his longstanding belief in preserving as much farmland as possible.

He endured a difficult second term characterized by shifting allegiances in the three-member board and charges from a fellow commissioner, Benjamin Brown, that he was a micromanager. He won the 1998 Republican primary by 14 votes.

Dell's third term has proved no easier. He and Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier took heat from Carroll residents and Gov. Parris N. Glendening when they voted to rezone 145 acres of the Rash farm in Woodbine for a 50-home golf community. Glendening said the vote violated Smart Growth principles by situating development in the middle of farmland.

Criticism over deal

Dell encountered more criticism in 2000 when he helped negotiate the county's purchase of the Lease brothers' farmland in Union Bridge for $850,000 -- more than six times the property's appraised value -- for construction of a road and railway spur that will serve Lehigh Portland Cement Co. Angered residents said Dell gave the brothers a sweetheart deal because he had known them for years through the farm community, but the county's ethics commission and a local judge said Dell did nothing wrong.

Dell has consistently supported building a water treatment plant at Piney Run Park. South Carroll residents claim the plant would ruin recreation at the park, and state environmental officials haven't authorized it because they say it would open the door for more development in the Liberty watershed.

When asked whether anger about Piney Run could cost him the election, Dell said, "Maybe, but it's our plan to provide water for the future. It's a good plan if people would get out of the way and let us execute it."

In the next breath, he fired back at his critics in South Carroll.

"They are people who will never be satisfied no matter what we do," he said.

When asked about those same critics' attacks on the county's management of growth, Dell said, "It's a problem, but it's not something that we're not working on."

Dell credits himself with pushing for creation of the county's adequate-facilities laws, designed to prevent residential growth from overwhelming the county's schools, roads and water supply. He said the laws have worked well but said he's disappointed the county hasn't stuck to its goal of limiting new development to 1,000 homes a year.

When asked why he hasn't pushed for tougher enforcement of the standard, he said, "I'd rather not see any growth at all. But those people have rights, and I can't stop them."

That's not good enough, say critics who believe Dell waffles on growth issues and charge that he is heavily influenced by pro-development Republican activists.

"He's been poisoned to vote a pro-development agenda when he knows it's not right," said Ross Dangel, spokesman for the Freedom Area Citizen's Council. "That shows his weakness as a leader."

Dell has shown that he's willing to change his mind. He became the swing figure, for example, in debate over a zoning law passed last year that state officials and many county residents said would cover the county's farmland with residential development.

Dell supported the law at first, saying it would offer farmers more flexibility in developing their properties while also preserving open space. But as opposition grew, his stance softened and he showed interest in developing a compromise with state officials. Eventually, he called for wholesale changes to the law because he said he didn't want subdivisions springing up where they could never have existed before. The commissioners toned down the law.

No fan of campaigning

Having to reconsider stances sometimes has made Dell cautious about promising too much. He has a low opinion of campaigning, which he said is rife with exaggeration.

He hasn't gone door to door this year, and he says he becomes detached and disinterested when criticism starts flying at commissioner forums. He was near the back of the pack in fund raising as of a week ago with about $1,000 raised, but he said about 200 people attended his $20-a-head pig roast fund-raiser Saturday. Nonetheless, don't expect his campaign to get any flashier.

"I think people know what they're getting by now," he said.

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