Laurel man's work, his concerns about sprawl lead to Green Party


Michael Ratcliffe grew up in Laurel. He and his wife, Kathy, who met when she was in seventh grade and he in eighth at Laurel Junior High School, chose southern Howard County as a place to settle down about 12 years ago, when their first child was born.

"It just seemed kind of natural to come back to Laurel," said Ratcliffe, a geographer who charts the changing boundaries of urban settlement.

As chief of the Population Distribution Branch of the U.S. Census Bureau, Ratcliffe reports on where people live or don't live, and what accounts for the different distributions of settlement patterns, he said.

"One of our tasks is to work with the Office of Management and Budget and define all of the metropolitan areas in the country. ... I've been involved in research projects with people outside the Census Bureau in trying to find ways to define urban sprawl so that when policymakers are trying to find ways to contain sprawl, they actually know what it is."

A case in point is his hometown.

"We've seen the area we're actually living [in] - we've seen it change quiet a bit," Ratcliffe said. "When we were growing up, this area was all farm and woods. We're at the stage where we can drive down these roads with our kids and say we remember when this was all woods, when these houses weren't here, and that sort of thing."

It seemed natural for him to get involved in local groups such as the North Laurel-Savage Planning Committee and to serve on the General Plan Task Force, helping to suggest priorities for Howard County's long-term growth.

When provisions of the Hatch Act (prohibiting federal employees from political activity) were relaxed, Ratcliffe decided to take the next step and join the local Green Party, which has been meeting at the Blue Cow Cafe in east Columbia.

The party, which is an advocate for nonviolence, grass-roots democracy, stewardship of the environment and social justice, has about 175 registered Howard County members. A core group of about 10 or 12 meets from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the second and fourth Mondays each month.

The Howard Greens are working on their own general plan for the Baltimore-Washington region, said Steve Kramer, the group's coordinator. But an urgent issue now is the war.

"We've been right in the center of the state party's discussions on how to respond to war, how to promote peace, both at this time and in the future," Ratcliffe said. "We're small, but very serious. We're going to try to do something about it."

Information: 301-604-7013, or e-mail or Directions to the Blue Cow Cafe: 410-772-8999.

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