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Emmitsburg bracing for big rush of traffic

Vic Bradshaw
Frederick News Post (9/2/03)

Some folks in this border town welcome the Pennsylvania residents who pass through on a daily basis. They're like permanent tourists: They support some town businesses, but the locals don't have to educate their children or provide them with police protection.

But the goodwill for the neighbors north of the Mason-Dixon line tends to fade when talk turns to the congestion on the streets of Emmitsburg.

A frequent complaint of Emmitsburg residents is that the town's streets are too crowded. Pennsylvanians who cut through town to get to Frederick or points beyond often are blamed for the traffic woes.

But as busy as Emmitsburg's streets are now, the town might be in for more tie-ups if the leaders of Liberty Township, Pa., approve a tentative planned residential development request before them.

The Wormald Cos., a Frederick developer, wants to build The Community at Liberty on 710 acres of rolling farmland not far from Emmitsburg. As planned, the development would have about 1,140 housing units as well as commercial space.

"We're concerned about that density (of development) plopped down in Adams County," Don Briggs, who lives in Emmitsburg, said of people he knows from both Pennsylvania and Maryland. "We like the uniqueness of the area.

"That's why everybody's kind of getting a little white-knuckled. I just don't know if we need that suburban spin right in the middle of nowhere."

To get to U.S. 15, the only major highway nearby, the development's residents would head down Tract Road, hang a left, and join the crowd along Emmitsburg's Main Street.

"Pennsylvania has very little reasonable access to get (cars from) that development out to Route 15 prior to coming to Emmitsburg," said Jim Hoover, Emmitsburg's mayor. "I'd like to see them upgrade some of their roads to get (cars) to Route 15 without coming to Emmitsburg.

"They're talking 1,140 homes, and more than half will be destined to running south on Route 15."

The mayor's point can be confirmed. A recent survey of vehicles traveling on West Main Street during a high-traffic period showed that more than half bore Pennsylvania license plates.

Problem elsewhere, too

Traffic, like everything, is relative. Emmitsburg doesn't have the congestion evident in Washington or its Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

However, expectations are different in a town of 3,800 people that's almost 30 miles away from any city of more than 10,000 people. In that environment, it shouldn't take three light changes to negotiate the town square in a one-stoplight town.

To whatever degree they exist, the traffic problems result primarily from the domino effect of rising housing costs. As home prices skyrocketed in and immediately around Washington, people looked farther away for affordable abodes. Now, Frederick County's rapidly rising housing prices are forcing some to head west into Washington County or north to Adams County to find a home they can afford.

It's what happens when a bedroom community comes to need its own bedroom community.

"It's unbearable if we have a 10- to 15-car backup," said Mr. Briggs, president of the Emmitsburg Business and Professional Association and operator of real estate company, Briggs Associates Inc., in the town. "It's expected in other parts of Frederick. I moved here because of that, the ease of getting to work."

Though it's not near the state border, Middletown has its own commuter traffic problem. Burgess Bill Thompson said traffic converges on the town along U.S. 40-A and Md. 17, meeting in the main intersection. The town has cried for help for 30 years, he said, but no one has answered the call.

As if to tempt residents, summer road projects gave the town a taste of life without commuter traffic. U.S. 40-A and Md. 17 were closed for much of the summer.

"You could set up a volleyball net on Main Street late in the morning while all those roads were closed," Mr. Thompson said. "Unfortunately, it didn't last long."

Maryland State Highway Administration officials said Pennsylvania commuter traffic uses Md. 97 to pass through Westminster daily. The same thing happens in Manchester and Hampstead as Md. 30 provides a main artery to the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area.

Pennsylvania has become popular with developers because its regulations differ greatly from Maryland's. Richard Schmoyer, director of planning and development for Adams County, Pa., said that while Frederick County hits developers with impact fees to help pay for necessary infrastructure improvements, Adams and most other Pennsylvania counties don't.

The state, he said, also has no "full-fledged" building codes. It also gives control of land use, zoning and subdivision approval to its townships and boroughs, not its counties, which leads to a zoning system Mr. Schmoyer described as "very fragmented."

"The cost to produce a house in Frederick County versus most municipalities in Pennsylvania varies substantially based on the regulatory climate," Mr. Schmoyer said.

SHA spokesman David Buck said Maryland does some transportation cross-planning with neighboring states. Those strategy sessions, however, deal with expected growth patterns over the next 20 to 25 years, not individual developments.

The state has short- and long-term plans, but growth in Frederick and neighboring counties came faster than predicted.

"We never would have thought to have this conversation 20, 15, 10 years ago," Mr. Buck said, "because people wouldn't have thought about going that far out (to live). There was so much growth so quick that there are people who moved out to those areas to get away from (congestion), and they're right in the middle of it again."

Costs exceed benefits?

While the over-the-border growth may be bad for traffic, it's good for some businesses.

In Emmitsburg, the Carriage House Inn probably gets 40 to 50 percent of its business from Pennsylvania diners, according to owner Bob Hance. Though he wouldn't provide numbers for proprietary reasons, Lorne Peters, vice president of operations for SNL Food Group, which operates the town's Jubilee Foods, said the market serves many customers from the Keystone State.

Convenience stores just outside of town also benefit from sales to Pennsylvania customers.

But Gettysburg, Pa., also draws shoppers from Liberty Township, Carroll Valley, Fairfield and other communities northwest of Emmitsburg. Mr. Briggs said Jubilee likely would lose its Pennsylvania customers if a grocer moved into The Community at Liberty's commercial component.

Mr. Hoover doesn't know how much business the town gets from its northern neighbors, but he thinks the town's traffic troubles outweigh any benefits. He'll send a letter to Liberty Township saying that the town is concerned about the impact Liberty development will have on its streets.

While traffic is a major headache for the mayor, rescue service is Joe Pelkey's concern. The president of the Emmitsburg Ambulance Co. (EAC) said his units have first-due responsibility for a good amount of territory in Pennsylvania, including a part of the land targeted for the Liberty development. He said about 40 percent of the calls EAC responds to are in Adams County.

If the development is approved and there are no major changes in the mutual-aid agreement between communities, Mr. Pelkey said Fairfield Fire and EMS, a smaller volunteer company, will serve most of the new homes and apartments. Just serving its slice of the development -- and negotiating the narrow country roads leading to the area -- will tax Emmitsburg's volunteers.

"With all that growth overall ... it's going to be very trying," Mr. Pelkey said. "Hopefully some people will move in who will be willing to assist by volunteering."

Seeking solutions

If the development is approved, how will Emmitsburg handle the traffic influx?

Mr. Hoover doesn't have an answer, but he knows one is needed. Main Street is only wide enough for two lanes of traffic and parking on both sides. Parking could be eliminated, but he called that "unrealistic and unreasonable." Some buildings don't have off-street parking.

Mr. Briggs would like to see Pennsylvania build a northern bypass to alleviate congestion in town. "I can't see somebody in Baltimore paying for a bypass that carries Pennsylvania traffic around Emmitsburg," he said.

The mayor would favor that, too, but he doubts it will happen. He said he thinks it will be up to Maryland to solve the problem.

The best solution, he said, is a bypass, a project "talked about for 20 years or more." It's never gotten beyond the talking stage.

"Nobody's taken the initiative to say, 'We're going to do this one day, and here's how we're going to do it,'" Mr. Hoover said.

Mr. Thompson said Middletown got tired of talking and changed its approach last year. It hired a lobbyist to try to land federal funds to study the traffic problem. Federal money, he said, tends to pique state interest.

"That's our hope right now," he said, "to get some federal funds do a definitive study. If we get the study funded with federal money, maybe we can break through one of these days."

Read more about the Proposed Fairfiled Development