They've been asked about spending more on schools, attracting industry and getting along better with the governor, but the 14 candidates for Carroll commissioner haven't heard about any issue more than growth.
Ask the candidates what voters are talking about most and the same word arises each time. But ask them why, how or if growth troubles the county, and the discussion gets murkier in a hurry.
Some, the moderate Republicans and Democrats mostly, say residential growth is overwhelming Carroll's school, water and road capacities. The more conservative Republicans say that a few crowded schools and traffic jams aside, the county's population isn't growing too quickly.
Census reports show Carroll's population growing 2 percent to 3 percent a year, slower than the other suburban counties in the Baltimore metropolitan area. But South Carroll has grown more rapidly - and, perhaps more importantly to voters and candidates, it feels different than it did 30 years ago. Traffic clogs main roads such as routes 32 and 26, subdivisions cover what used to be meadows and crop fields, and thousands of children attend classes in trailers.
Most people who say they're concerned about growth acknowledge that it can't be stopped and that many of them wouldn't live in Carroll if it hadn't been allowed. But county services must keep up with the population - and therein lies the problem, they say. Many also worry that unless it can attract more industry, the county will have to allow more residential growth to maintain an adequate tax base.
Responding to these concerns, many candidates have promised to slow growth, peppering interviews and talks at the five candidate forums with their opinions.
"You're putting up with growth right now that shouldn't be here," Republican incumbent Julia Walsh Gouge told a crowd of about 200 Thursday at a commissioner forum in Eldersburg.
Gouge says the county no longer provides residents the quality of life they expect or deserve. The county's adequate-facilities laws aren't being enforced strictly enough, she argues.
Need for data
Gouge, seeking a fourth term, says county planners have never assembled a comprehensive database of the planned developments across the county. Without that data, she asks, how can anyone be sure whether school and water and road capacity will be adequate for a given subdivision? She says the county should deny building permits in an area not when schools reach 120 percent of capacity but when they reach 80 percent or 90 percent.
"I promise I won't vote for any more until we have adequate facilities," Gouge told the crowd.
The other two incumbents, Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier, have sparred with Gouge over growth issues for the past four years. Many critics say the two have pushed a pro-development agenda, evidenced by their support last year for a new zoning law that could have created thousands of new residential lots across the county. Though both backed away from the law, critics - especially in South Carroll - say the episode remains a black mark.
Frazier doesn't see a large growth problem. She says county laws stop any building that would unduly strain facilities and that many of the houses being built now are based on leftover permits from the era when Carroll had no adequate-facilities law. She has adamantly disagreed with Gouge's support for a hard cap on the number of houses that can be built in the county per year. Such a law would discourage the housing market from finding its natural equilibrium, Frazier says.
She says the county hasn't always built schools in the right places and has struggled to get money for roads from the state, but that the commissioners shouldn't be blamed for those problems.
"I wouldn't change our approach to growth," she said in a recent interview.
Dell falls between Frazier and Gouge. Though he has generally voted with Frazier on disputed growth issues, he laments the county's inability to meet its 1997 goal of limiting new development to 1,000 homes per year.
Dell notes that the county has preserved thousands of acres of farmland during his three terms and says that in an ideal world, he would prevent all future subdivisions. "But people have rights," he says.
He grows exasperated at suggestions that a new board could suddenly halt or significantly slow growth. With eight municipal governments in the county, each with a distinct zoning and permitting process, the commissioners wield only so much influence, he argues.
"A lot of what our critics are saying they would do, we've already done," he said. "I don't know what to tell them anymore. I think they just show up to heckle."
Views among the seven Republican challengers run the gamut between Frazier's preference for the status quo and Gouge's calls for reform.
Former newspaper columnist and editor Dean L. Minnich has allied himself with Gouge, arguing that county government has broken its basic promise of offering residents a pleasant quality of life. Though Minnich calls the county's existing master plan for growth a good document, the commissioners haven't enforced its principles, he said.
Like Gouge, Minnich says the county must first establish a comprehensive database of approved and potential developments. Then, he says, the commissioners must gather with town, school, emergency and other officials and ask them what constitutes too much growth. Only after such a comprehensive meeting would he offer a definitive plan.
"Let the people who confront the problems every day offer their input," he says. "They'll come up with the best solutions anyway."
Minnich has commended officials from the county's municipalities for their recent efforts to present a unified voice on growth issues.
On the other end of the spectrum from Minnich, conservative Ed Primoff says the county isn't growing too fast overall but is making a mistake by following the Smart Growth philosophy of concentrating growth into developments in the towns. He says state leaders and officials from the rest of the Baltimore metropolitan area are trying to impose lower-cost housing and mass transit on Carroll residents.
"Most of the candidates running, even Republicans, are tap-dancing around the growth issue by saying, 'Let's put it all in the towns,'" he said. "But the impact of high-density tract housing is the same to all Carroll County citizens, whether they be in the towns or outside of the towns, and it's got to be stopped."
Fellow candidates say Primoff, who was booed at forums in Finksburg and Eldersburg, is using Baltimore as a boogeyman and that mass transit is not an issue for Carroll.
"Our sovereignty is not at risk," Minnich said Thursday night, drawing laughter and applause from the Eldersburg crowd. "These are false issues being raised by desperate people."
Planning commission member David Brauning says the county faces a growth problem. He's not sure how much of one, however, and he says the county must assemble better data before significantly revamping its laws.
"That's how I approach every problem," he said. "I don't give answers before I've collected all of the information I need."
Call for enforcement
Union Bridge Mayor Perry L. Jones Jr. says the county has adequate laws but doesn't enforce them properly. If classrooms are too crowded or fire stations too busy, no loophole should allow building to proceed, Jones says. He argues that areas of the county such as Union Bridge and Taneytown could stand a lot more growth. But Eldersburg, Finksburg and Sykesville are built out, he says, and those areas shouldn't take on more houses.
"In Union Bridge, we don't build anything without having the infrastructure first, and that principle should guide the whole county," he said.
George Butler, who works in the drug enforcement arm of the county state's attorney's office, also says the county doesn't properly enforce the laws it has.
"My understanding is that we have too many exceptions right now," he said. "It's not working."
Fellow challengers Henry Griese and Benjamin Perricone agree and say the answer lies in more long-term planning.
Griese, who has little experience with county government and has offered few specific answers at candidate forums, says the commissioners must decide what the county should look like in the long term and tailor all of its laws to meet that goal.
Perricone served on Manchester's planning commission in the 1990s and says he fears the county will be completely paved over in 50 years. Tweaking existing laws won't suffice, he says. "The laws we have now don't really address what the county will look like in 15, 30 or 75 years," Perricone said. "What are we going to leave our children and grandchildren?"
The three Democrats and independent Vince DePalmer, none of whom face contested primaries, favor tougher restrictions on growth. Betty Smith employs the slogan "Slow Growth" on her campaign signs, and Neil Ridgely says that if it were up to him, he would scrap the county's adequate-facilities laws and start over.
"We need to stop raising houses as our best crops," said the third Democrat, Sykesville Councilwoman Jeannie Nichols, at Thursday's forum.
The line drew one of the biggest ovations of the evening.