Fort Monmouth, N.J. -- The city of Aberdeen's annexation of 500 acres, which raised the ire of hundreds of residents at a raucous public hearing Monday night, was a selling point three days later to prospective new residents from New Jersey.
Standing at the front of a narrow conference room as a generator hummed in the background, Aberdeen Mayor S. Fred Simmons told a group of workers and their spouses that the city would have 1,000 acres soon available for development, a clean slate where they could build their dream homes.
"We have the unique opportunity to develop 1,000 acres near Ripken Stadium," he told the crowd on the first day of a three-day relocation fair. "You can have a bay view, you can live on the golf course or live in the woods where no one can find you."
The project has served as an early indication of the struggle county and municipal leaders are likely to encounter in the coming years as they work to offer an attractive destination for thousands of new workers while protecting the lifestyle desired by current residents. While Simmons, planning director Phyllis Grover and police Chief Randy M. Rudy - who shed his police uniform for a suit and tie - spoke about the development's prospects, constituents at home were devising ways to thwart the project.
Opponents of the various annexations - the largest of which is dubbed "The Wetlands" and was approved unanimously by the City Council last week - have decided to join forces, said Jerry Queen, who lives in Locksley Manor.
The stop sign symbols that blanketed much of Aberdeen before last week's public hearing were only the beginning. In an aggressive drive to force the annexations to a referendum, Queen said, opponents have hired two attorneys and have taken out advertisements that will run in newspapers this week. They acquired the names and addresses of all Aberdeen's voters and expect to go door to door to rally support, he said.
City Manager Douglas R. Miller said the residents have 45 days to put the annexations on a November ballot question. They have been receiving informal advice on how to navigate the process from the activist group Friends of Harford, which has initiated two countywide referendums.
"We're surrounded by farmland, and we'd like to keep it that way," Queen said. "We don't want to see villas, condos and townhomes, and we don't have the infrastructure to support them."
The communities in question are two different worlds. Whereas Aberdeen Proving Ground is sprawling and separated from Harford County, taking up much of the county's southern coast along the Chesapeake Bay, Fort Monmouth is integrated into the fabric of the Monmouth County community, almost indistinguishable among the shops, homes and civic buildings that line the area's streets.
The integration here is noteworthy - boroughs flow into one another, as do areas of wealth into less-affluent neighborhoods. It has the feel of downtown Aberdeen or Havre de Grace, but stretches for miles, not blocks, and public transportation and sidewalks are a key feature. It is busy, yet not noisy; it's built up, but not urban.
"I'm used to walking out the door and going to the mall; I'm used to walking out the door to go to the store or go to a school," said security specialist Kevin Friedman, 45, who is frustrated with the prospect of moving. "It'll take 30 minutes just to get to the hospital" in Harford.
Harford can't hope to re-create the northern New Jersey living experience - this area was planned this way, whereas Harford originated as largely as an agricultural county - but officials want to meet some of the workers' needs.
"Some differences we won't overcome - like being five minutes from the ocean," said Harford County Executive David R. Craig, who was one of many local officials who attended the fair.
Christine and Ray Schulze of Toms River, N.J., told Simmons they had recently built their "dream house" - a 3,600- square-foot, brick-front, four-bedroom home with 2 1/2 bathrooms. They were worried about finding a comparable home that they could afford here, Christine Schulze said.
But Simmons said the couple lit up when he told them about the available land.
"They went from dread to excitement," he said. "They can build an even greater dream house, and they'll be able to walk to Ripken Stadium and the shopping we're going to put there. The traffic will be a lot better, too [compared with Fort Monmouth] - they'll be able to get on-post in five minutes.
"We're going to build what people want. It's going to be market-driven."
Simmons said he welcomes the referendum effort but said growth is going to occur in and around Aberdeen either way. He and other city officials believe the chance to develop such a large swath at once is a unique opportunity to shape growth and serve the needs of APG's growing work force.
"If they've thought it all the way through, and keeping that area rural is more important to them than meeting the mandate of [the military base realignment process], then that's real for them, and they should do what they believe," he said. "With or without annexation, growth in the city will be fairly constant - it'll just be scattered amongst 15 smaller developers without a real plan."