CALIFORNIA — CALIFORNIA-- --A kingfisher divebombs into a thicket of reeds. A majestic blue heron with time on its hands glides overhead at cruise-control speed. But all's not well at Mill Creek.
The river otters have vanished. And those once-busy beavers are disappearing along with the creek bottom itself. Silt from a nearby high-end housing development is apparently clogging this St. Mary's County stream.
"If you were to try and stand up in here," says Robert Willey, 55, a civil service budget analyst and lifelong county resident, gazing at brackish water from the front seat of his canoe, "you'd go knee-deep in mud."
With the population in this Southern Maryland county soon to surpass 100,000 and a 30 percent spurt on the horizon, Willey and his neighbors are worried about growth. It is among their top concerns, they say, as they prepare to head to the polls Nov. 7 and cast votes for governor, U.S. Senate and a range of local candidates.
"I don't want to look and feel like Montgomery County," says Kellie Gofus, a friend of Willey's steering the canoe and taking a jab at the state's most populous jurisdiction. She and her husband had to sell their power boat because it can no longer maneuver in Mill Creek.
Much is in flux in the once-sleepy St. Mary's. The population hovered around 15,000 from 1790 until World War II. In 1943, Patuxent Naval Air Station moved to the peninsula. That wake-up call is still sounding as residents are jostled by traffic, crime and sprawl.
Route 235, which runs down the spine of the county, is eight lanes wide in parts. Still, five-mile traffic jams are common. Home prices have spiked beyond the reach of most young families as the median price approaches $280,000. Trailer parks are becoming passe, while mansions rise in cornfields; bedrooms are a bumper crop.
A water crisis looms a few decades down the road, the Maryland Geological Survey warns. Schools are filled beyond capacity. Volunteer fire and rescue services have been stretched uncomfortably thin.
Likewise, the area's politics also seem in tumult.
Once a bastion of conservative-leaning Southern Democrats, St. Mary's saw legions of voters change parties during the Reagan revolution, so much so that party registrations are almost evenly divided at 20,000 apiece.
Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. carried the county with 63 percent of the vote in 2002. Some think he'll cruise to easy victory again. Others believe that Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the Democratic nominee, can make inroads.
On Monday morning, former Democratic county Commissioner Joe Anderson sat in Linda's Cafe in Lexington Park - a favorite hangout by the gates of Patuxent Naval Air Station - having coffee with former state Sen. J. Frank Raley, at 80 years old one of the county's Democratic warhorses. They were handicapping the gubernatorial race.
Raley expects Ehrlich to win the county by a healthy margin, noting that former Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening courted St. Mary's by generously dispensing state funds, especially for education, but to no avail.
"When he ran, did he carry the county? No!," Raley says.
Anderson, president of the St. Mary's River Watershed Association, was part of a slate of renegade, control-growth commissioners who were swept into office in 1998 - and swept right out in 2002. He believes that O'Malley can pull as much as 50 percent in the county.
The political winds have shifted, he says. A growth-and-development tipping point may have been reached with voters.
What makes him think so? Jack Russell.
Russell, a 63-year-old former waterman from St. George Island, is a boat captain who also runs a small nonprofit organization called the Chesapeake Bay Field Lab. A political novice, he won this month's Democratic primary for president of the board of county commissioners, thumping two better-known, better-dressed mainstream candidates.
"He ran 2-to-1," Anderson tells Raley, "and that says something to me even in a primary."
Russell - who wears tie-dyed shirts and shorts, and has the rough hands of a blue-collar man used to scratching for a dollar - proved a surprisingly formidable candidate. He figures he knocked on 2,000 doors and raised $30,000 in small-donor contributions.
"I think the overriding issue in St. Mary's County is just the growth we've had the last several years," Russell says, "the loss of identity, the loss of community."
Russell's victory may seem small potatoes to outsiders, but county wags are impressed.
"He locked into the fact people are fed up with irresponsible growth," says Kenny Rossignol, a pizzeria owner who doubles as editor and publisher of St. Mary's Today, a muckraking community newspaper.
Count Rossignol among those fed-up folks. He endorsed one of Russell's opponents in the primary, but is now a convert. He endorsed Ehrlich in 2002 but was an early O'Malley man this time around. He appreciates the mayor being receptive to building a light rail in St. Mary's County, one proposed solution to ever-escalating traffic.
"Our single biggest issue is growth and development," Rossignol says. "If it takes a liberal Democrat to fix that, I'm onboard that train."
Growth comes with a flip side. Household incomes have risen here, more children go to college and the convenience of strip-mall shopping beckons: Best Buy, Taco Bell, Sheetz, Old Navy, Target, Starbucks and McDonald's, McDonald's, McDonald's.
"It's kind of a love-hate relationship," observes Bob Paul, a biology professor at St. Mary's College. "People need Lowe's, but it creates congestion and all the ills like Waldorf," he adds, referring to Charles County's commercial hub, which has become synonymous with mall sprawl.
Growth and development issues have been heated topics in state politics for years. Glendening tried to build a national reputation as an advocate of Smart Growth. When Ehrlich took office in 2003, he scaled back such initiatives, opting for road-building to accommodate traffic.
The governor promotes his environmental record, notably his $30-a-year surcharge to upgrade sewage treatment plants. But he made less-favorable headlines in St. Mary's when his administration proposed selling a state-owned tract of forest to a Baltimore-based, politically connected contractor for a below-market price.
Some of that land would have been preserved, but other portions, state records later showed, were to be used for home construction. Lawmakers passed a constitutional amendment to restrict such sales, which will appear on the November ballot.
Zach Messitte, assistant professor of political science at St. Mary's College and director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, doesn't believe growth and development is "the sole determining issue" with the electorate. Nor does he believe that issue "cuts clearly" across party lines.
However, Messitte does agree that the tie-dye populist bears watching: "Jackie Russell's nomination signals something. They wanted someone who had a real love of the county. ... I think people are starting to accept the fact that growth is going to happen. The question is, how are you going to manage growth?"
South of St. Mary's College the buzz of bulldozers isn't heard so often.
Donnie Tennyson, 38, likes it that way. He was valedictorian of Great Mills High School, Class of 1986 but never attended college. Why bother? He was born and raised on a tobacco farm, already knew what he wanted to do for a living.
"I'm a farmer first and foremost," he says, adding, "I don't want the growth."
Tennyson doesn't make that declaration while perched on a John Deere tractor. He's seated in the office of the supermarket he owns and operates with his wife, Betty, not far from the 350 acres - some his, some leased - where he grows corn and soybeans.
You can't buy gas at his store anymore. Tennyson couldn't compete with the glitzy, low-price Sheetz and Wawa stations, so his gas supplier pulled his tanks.
He's a registered independent and has testified in Annapolis on agricultural issues. He has visited smart-growth farm operations in Europe. Tennyson isn't against development. He just wants it controlled his way. He'll be voting for Jack Russell and incumbent state Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Democrat who has strong conservation credentials - and whom Republicans have targeted this year.
He's also voting for Bob Ehrlich.
The governor may have vetoed Dyson's bill for a down-state transportation study and may have caught flak for that proposed bargain-basement forest sale. Yet, Tennyson insists that he has been a good friend of the Rural Legacy program that preserves family farmland.
"I'm not comfortable with someone from Baltimore City knowing our needs and desires," he says of O'Malley.
His personal desire is to keep farming. For life. Yes, he could flee the Wawa invasion, head out West, and make an easier go of it in some strange place where they wear cowboy boots and never smell the ocean.
But St. Mary's is home.
So Tennyson will stock his shelves with sausage and soap and screwdrivers; if need be, plow under crops someday and raise Christmas trees. The future is muddy, like that chocolate water in Mill Creek.
"We've just got small pockets of development going on now, 10 to 20 houses," he says. "But it's going to get worse. We just keep fighting it."