SUDDENLY, SLOW growth seems a political orphan in western Howard County.
After more than 200 angry rural landowners expressed solid opposition to growth-restricting zoning changes at a county-sponsored meeting at Glenelg High School on Aug. 2, elected officials have not exactly leapt to defend the proposals of Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director.
County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat and McLaughlin's boss, has not stepped forward to defend her. Others in the class of 1998 who campaigned on a growth-control platform are being equally cautious.
Robey said he responded to pressure from the state, which is threatening to decertify Howard County's agricultural preservation program if more is not done to conserve western county land. The Glenelg meeting was an opportunity to see how western county residents felt about McLaughlin's draft ideas.
"I wanted to get some feedback from them. I certainly got it," Robey said. "I have no intention of downsizing, or changing the zoning out there unless the people of the west, the people of Howard County were inclined to support it."
On the other side of the aisle, County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon -- an Ellicott City Republican who is running for county executive -- said, "I've never been a slow-growth advocate. I've been a managed-growth advocate. The two don't conflict at all."
Merdon said he is not taking a position on specific zoning changes until he sees a bill, though he voted against earlier measures to cut the western county's annual allotment of new houses from 250 to 150.
He favors clustering houses on rural land via the transfer of building rights from one parcel to another, he said, as the best way to save open space.
Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said, "We need to wait and see what they're ultimately going to propose."
Merdon and state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, a Republican former councilman, swore off accepting donations from development interests in that 1998 campaign as a way to demonstrate their commitment to fighting congestion.
But both said this week that their real aim is to make sure public facilities are adequate before new developments are built -- not to oppose homebuilding per se.
"I was always supportive of more managed growth. That was not to say you couldn't build. It was the pace of building," Kittleman said. "We've always thought they should be able to build as much as the law allows."
Kittleman spoke at the Glenelg meeting, scoffing at McLaughlin's fears that if Howard County does nothing to curb rural development and loses state agricultural preservation certification, it could risk future removal of land already in preservation.
Landowners' lawyers could argue that the state action proves farming is no longer viable in Howard, she said. She and planner Mina Hilsenrath argued that the best farmland is being eaten up for housing because homebuilding rights can be transferred to farmland from other parcels.
Guzzone did not dispute the views of Kittleman and Merdon, though he noted that "the General Plan had us saving another 5,000 acres and we've only saved 400 [so far]."
But Angela Beltram, a Democrat and former council member who led a drive to petition dozens of higher-density, urban-style zoning changes to referendum in next year's elections, has little sympathy for the westerners' complaints that the county is unfairly changing the rules.
"They can sell their land. Nobody's stopping them from selling their land. No one told them they'd have a gold mine either," she said, referring to the sharply higher land prices developers are paying.
If the county wants to preserve what is left of farming, "then we've got to do something," she said. "Nothing is stable in zoning, as people in Ellicott City and Elkridge have learned over the years."
Guzzone said moves to restrict zoning are tough decisions for elected officials.
"It's one of the more difficult things any elected official would be asked to do," he said. "It somehow doesn't feel the greatest to take value out of someone's land."
Politics at the fair
Most people who attend the Howard County Fair are interested in fun, not politics -- which is not to say the politicians don't try.
"A lot of people stopped by the booth, some just to pick up a brochure," said Merdon, who has begun campaigning for county executive in the 2006 race. Robey cannot run again for county executive. Kittleman's booth also is boosting District 5 County Council candidate Greg Fox.
Both parties are seeking prospective new voters, and the GOP is collecting signatures on petitions supporting Supreme Court nominee John Roberts and backing Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s veto of a bill requiring Wal-Mart to pay for more health care for its employees.
"I think a lot of people are just starting the process of educating themselves. People ask me, 'Are you running against Jim Robey?' " Merdon said.
Guzzone, who has not declared his intentions for next year, said the Democrats are luring visitors to their booth with a heat-related come-on.
"You know who stops at our booth? People who want a free drink of water. We offer water," Guzzone said.