This article brought to you by Maryland Muckraker.
Mt. Airy is a small town where big things are happening. A Town Council in open opposition to its Mayor. A Task Force set on saving a historic building from the heap. A local residents group resisting a series of landscape changing overdevelopments. And a looming municipal election that could change the trajectory of it all.
What remains to be determined is the future. But one thing has already been made clear: the coming story of the town will be written with the full participation of the entire local community.
Rift between Council and Mayor
Immediately after Larry Hushour beat Councilwoman Pam Reed by a wide margin to become Mt. Airy’s Mayor during a special election in 2021, taking over for Council President Jason Poirier who was temporarily occupying the post after the untimely death of prior Mayor Patrick Rockinberg, a commitment was made by some Council Members who were displeased with Hushour’s win, to maneuver against him by any means available – all according to a whistleblower who credibly observed the planning first hand and later reported it to the Office the Maryland State Prosecutor.
What followed was a months-long, multi-front effort at curbing Mayor Hushour’s agenda, starting with two ethics complaints that were filed against him just after the Mayoral election. The first, a complaint for using town property for a campaign event. The second, filed by Reed, alleging Hushour was taxi-ing voters too close to the polls on election day. Both complaints were resolved by the Mt. Airy Ethics Commission.
Months later, when Mayor Hushour went to appoint two new members to the Town’s Planning Commission, which oversees development and was headed up by a realtor, both of his nominations, one a West Point graduate and the other a Police Officer, were voted down by the Town Council 3-2, with Reed, Poirier, and Councilman Stephen Domotor being the three.
Flat Iron building
Then, after finally relenting on the Planning Commission appointments, the same three Council Members voted to demolish the historic Flat Iron building which landmarks the center of town, presumably to make way for a sleeker looking plaza like you might find in Montgomery County. The motion to level the Flat Iron was first made by Domotor, formerly a Chief Safety Officer with The U.S. Department of Transportation, who considered the building a safety risk were it to collapse.
Hushour, hoping to preserve the building if feasible, countered in his capacity as Executive, ordering town employees against procuring bids for the demolition job. The Council threatened to sue Hushour for the block, only cooling on the idea once Hushour made the cost of such legal action known to the residents of the town who would ultimately foot the bill. Hushour then started the Flat Iron Task Force, an entity that would explore preservation options and testify during Town Council meetings with their findings and recommendations.
Nullifying the position of Mayor
Next, in what made for the most serious escalation yet, the Council reintroduced Town Charter amendments that would nullify the position of Mayor all-together, handing most Executive functions like hiring, firing, and town procurements, over to the Town Administrator who would report directly to the Town Council, leaving the Office of Mayor completely outside the decision-making curve, an outcome that would seem inconsistent with the public’s support of Hushour as an Executive as shown by their votes for him in that capacity. Hushour countered this time, by conveying his willingness to take the issue all the way to a town referendum, where residents could vote on the issue directly.
Hanging in the balance all the while are the Beck and Greentree properties, whose development stands to shape the landscape and populace of Mt. Airy for generations to come. The Beck property in particular, an 88 acre plot of grass that straddles Route 27 just a half-mile from Main Street and was rezoned in 2021 to accommodate high-density residential and commercial, stands to stress the town’s infrastructure and change its look and feel forever.
Reed has said she generally supports the development of the property, which originally called for Rockville developer Kaz Brothers to build 200 apartments, 263 townhomes, 119 single family homes, and 93,600 square feet of commercial space on the plot, while Hushour has shown reluctance to see the town’s population surge from 10,000 to 13,000 so quickly.
Citizens against overdevelopment
A handful of concerned local citizens making up the Mt. Airy Citizens Against Overdevelopment, have said that most residents are unaware of just how drastic the changes coming to the community will be, all stemming from the obscure proceedings of local government. With the collapse of blue-collar local-newspapers, contextualizing government’s tedium into understandable takeaways has fallen to the volunteer group that regularly coordinates on Facebook, has a website with a blog, and appears on podcasts to tell their story and share their perspective.
Now, come May, Council Members Reed, Poirier, and Karl Munder are up for re-election. Reed has indicated she will not pursue another term, while Poirier and Munder seem likely to. Residents announcing their candidacy otherwise include Clayton Gilbert, Jason Evans, and Tim Washabaugh, whose aunt, Patty Washabaugh was formerly a Councilwoman and recently spoke out against how the current Town Council has handled the Beck property, allowing developers to skirt open-space requirements.
As it stands today, Mt. Airy is stuck somewhere between the past and the future, with big questions to answer. What is the role of a Mayor? Should the Flat Iron building be saved or moved aside? What should the town and the surrounding area look like? And just how much development is too much?
These questions and more stand to be answered come May.