Capital Gazette: 2007 top stories No. 2-10

* No. 2: Development
* No. 3: Annapolis peace talks
* No. 4: Special session
* No. 5: Mids beat the Irish
* No. 6: Electric rates
* No. 7: Housing slump
* No. 8: Bay Bridge accident
* No. 9: Leopold’s first year
* No. 10: Academy scandals

No. 2: Development

Though County Executive John R. Leopold thinks Anne Arundel has “overbuilt and underplanned” for decades, the county’s roster of pavement continued to grow in 2007, despite a few small victories by preservationists.

In October, the $250 million Park Place development opened, revitalizing an abandoned strip of West Street. The Westfield Annapolis mall cut the ribbon on its new $100 million expansion a month later, opening 60 new stores and adding 1,000 parking spaces.

Cranes pierce the sky above the growing 33-acre Annapolis Towne Centre development where the $400 million mixed-use project will feature retail space, restaurants, apartments and a 12-story, 150-unit luxury condominium building when it opens in fall 2008.

Mr. Leopold said he would like to see more of those mixed-use developments around major transportation hubs such as the Odenton MARC station or BWI Thurgood Marshall airport to concentrate population growth and contain sprawl.

With the Base Realignment and Closure process expected to bring more than 20,000 new jobs to Fort George G. Meade, Odenton and the surrounding area are also feeling the earliest waves of a coming growth tsunami.

Not every new shopping center was enthusiastically greeted.

Bill Berkshire is still entertaining “close to a dozen offers” to develop his 83 acre parcel along Route 3 in Crofton after plans for a Wal-Mart met with stiff public resistance. The property owner said he is considering any number of developments for the property, including turning it into a park – an option favored in a Crofton First poll – if the right offer comes along.

In May the county agreed to shell out $6.1 million to stop a proposal to build a Target store in rural Wayson Corner.

Petrie-Ross Ventures had proposed building the store, followed by more retail outlets, restaurants and a bank, on a wooded 27-acre parcel in Waysons Corner.

But in May, the county agreed to buy the 30-acre parcel across the road from Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary following public outcry.

– Andrew Childers

No. 3: Annapolis peace talks

Key world leaders came to Annapolis last month to outline a plan for bringing peace to the Middle East, and they left town with a commitment to resume talking – and working – in the coming year.

Representatives from more than 40 countries and organizations, including Saudi Arabia, attended the conference dedicated to creating peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The international affair was held in the Naval Academy’s stately Memorial Hall.

At the end of the day-long affair, a stern-sounding Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters “we expect broad international attendance” at future meetings, and other countries must “pledge tangible and generous assistance” to helping develop a nation for the Palestinians.

Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham H. Foxman said this week that the process may work because President Bush, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are desperate for success.

“The caution is still out there, but so far, nobody is disappointed,” Mr. Foxman said. “It is always a question of timing, and maybe the timing is that this administration is coming to a close and Bush is weak, and Abbas is weak and Olmert is weak, and all three need to accomplish something – they all want to leave a legacy.”

Ahmed Rehab, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, took a wait-and-see attitude toward the Annapolis Peace Talks.

“To me, it is about action instead of meetings and places,” Mr. Rehab said. “We have had so many attempts over the years, it remains whether we will see any actionable items. Peace will be achieved when justice is achieved.”

Whatever the outcome, some local residents seemed to enjoy watching the conference unfold, as huge Marine Corps helicopters shuttled into and out of the Naval Academy, and fleets of limousines with SUV escorts sped between Annapolis and Washington.

Other residents said they did not enjoy having their daily routines upset.

Downtown merchants reported mixed results from the conference, with some reporting better-than-normal sales, and others saying they lost trade because of the conference.

– Earl Kelly

No. 4: Special session

It was an ugly problem dealt with in a confusing process that created a solution taxpayers never like to see.

January’s warning bells turned into November’s war drums as the General Assembly was called into a special session to solve the state’s $1.5 billion deficit.

Partisanship exploded as Republicans tried to band together against every tax increase and slot machine proposal that came across their desks. The entire session nearly ended in defeat for Gov. Martin O’Malley as some days showed little Democratic support for his plan.

In the end, Mr. O’Malley, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr., were able to cobble together enough votes to pass sales, titling, income, tobacco and corporate taxes to give a more than $1.3 billion boost to the state’s budget.

“We have achieved more than many of us thought possible,” Mr. O’Malley said when signing the bills. “This was one of the toughest things you ever have to do in any sort of representative democracy.”

But things won’t be getting easier. The governor still has to make more than $200 million in cuts that could affect financially strapped counties and a battle over the November 2008 slot machine referendum is hovering in the distance.

“It is not going to be a pleasant year,” Del. Mary Ann Love, D-Glen Burnie, said recently.

Things could get even worse if a lawsuit filed by leading Republicans succeeds in negating all of the onerous tax work already done. A hearing on the challenge, which contends the special session was conducted outside of a constitutional rule, is scheduled for Jan. 4.

– Liam Farrell

No. 5: Mids beat the Irish

Standing outside the Navy football locker room, deep in the bowels of storied Notre Dame Stadium, Capt. Margaret D. Klein grasped the significance of the moment.

Capt. Klein, the Commandant of Midshipmen, announced to a group of reporters that classes would be canceled at the Naval Academy the following Monday.

It was a rare move that spoke volumes about Navy’s stunning 46-44 triple-overtime victory over storied Notre Dame on Nov. 3. The Midshipmen had snapped an NCAA-record 43-game losing streak to the Fighting Irish and that monumental victory would be among the most notable of the entire college football season.

Within 24 hours, the interview requests had poured in from newspapers and magazines across the country. Head coach Paul Johnson and team captain Reggie Campbell appeared on numerous national radio programs the following week.

Sophomore linebacker Ram Vela made the defining play of the game – flying like Superman over a would-be blocker to sack Notre Dame quarterback Evan Sharpley on a crucial fourth-down play in regulation. Defensive end Chris Kuhar-Pittars was another hero, recovering a fumble and returning it 16 yards for a touchdown that put Navy ahead for the first time. Then there was senior inside linebacker Irv Spencer, who led a charge of multiple Midshipmen who swarmed Irish running back Travis Thomas on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line to bring an end to the marathon game.

Campbell, a senior slot back with a heart almost as big as his 5-foot-6 frame, provided the winning points by hauling in a 25-yard touchdown pass as well as a two-point conversion toss from quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada on the opening possession of the third overtime.

Navy had not beaten Notre Dame since 1963 when Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach was the quarterback and the team captain was Tom Lynch, a man who would later become an admiral and Superintendant of the Naval Academy.

Adm. Lynch was among the sellout crowd of 80,000 at Notre Dame Stadium that afternoon and saw Navy put an end to the remarkable streak that had survived so many close calls over the years. Mr. Staubach watched the back-and-forth game from his Dallas home while hosting a party for his NASCAR team.

Head coach Paul Johnson had seemingly accomplished everything during his six-year tenure at Navy, leading the once downtrodden program to five straight winning seasons capped by bowl berths. The Midshipmen also have captured the coveted Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy five consecutive years while compiling a stellar 11-1 record against Army and Air Force under Mr. Johnson’s leadership.

That long-awaited victory over Notre Dame was the final feather in the cap of Mr. Johnson, who left Navy following the regular season to become head coach at Georgia Tech.

– Bill Wagner

No. 6: Electric rates

Martin O’Malley swept into the Governor’s mansion this year with a vow to stymie the power company’s spiraling rate requests.

But the governor’s hand-picked power regulators announced in May that with “reluctance, but with little legal option” Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.’s 50 percent rate increase would go into effect June 1 after nearly two weeks of hearings.

On June 1, residential customers started paying 13.6 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity, a 48 percent increase from last year, bringing the average BGE customer’s bill to $136 a month.

The latest rate zap – the second in as many years – came just weeks before the state learned it faced the potential for rolling brownouts within the next five years.

“The state has done almost no planning since deregulation,” Maryland Energy Administrator Malcolm Woolf said. “The last plan was 1993. If we had done more planning, maybe we wouldn’t have been caught by surprise.”

Lawmakers expended a great deal of energy this summer holding hearings and conferences on the state’s energy future.

Instead, ratepayers were urged to do more to conserve electricity. Mr. O’Malley has set a goal of reducing per capita power consumption by 15 percent statewide in the next eight years.

“It’s not just about the bill. It’s also about keeping the lights on,” Mr. Woolf said.

Just weeks after BGE’s latest rate increase went into effect, Mr. O’Malley pumped an additional $5 million into the state program, which aids low-income residents. The rising power costs caused a rush of interest in the energy assistance program administered by the Anne Arundel Community Action Agency.

After the Public Service Commission released its report detailing options for re-regulating the power industry, Mr. O’Malley vowed to put a state energy plan before the General Assembly in January.

“There’s a lot of low hanging fruit we haven’t got,” Mr. Woolf said.

– Andrew Childers

No. 7: Housing slump

The sign out front read “For Sale.”

And in 2007, it kept reading that way for months on end.

The housing bubble burst this year – leaving Anne Arundel County home owners to get accustomed to a market where their investments don’t appreciate 20 percent a year and a sale takes weeks, not hours.

“They were expecting that to last forever,” said Pat Ogle, an associate broker with Champion Realty in Annapolis who started in the business 20 years ago. “That was not a normal market.”

Only 346 county homes were sold last month, down from 596 in November 2006, according to the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc.

That was the lowest number of homes sold in any month since January 2000 – and just one third of the number of homes sold in June 2004 when the market was red hot.

But local experts and real estate agents say it’s not the end of the world.

“It was pretty predictable a couple years ago that this was going to go down pretty dramatically,” said Bill Hyland of Keller Williams Realty in Annapolis. He tracks condos on “I think we are just getting back to the same market we had seven years ago,”

While agents blame a pronounced slowdown in the economy, rising interest rates and a tightening of credit requirements, the housing slump hasn’t made it much cheaper to live in Anne Arundel County.

The median sale price for a home in Anne Arundel was $343,450 in November, up one percent from November 2006.

Experts disagree on what the numbers will do next year. While Mr. Ogle points to BRAC and the continuation of relatively low interest rates to predict sales and prices are looking up, Mr. Hyland notes national news stories while predicting prices will drop about 20 percent off their 2005 highs.

Mr. Hyland added that plenty of people are looking to buy, they are just waiting to hear the market has hit bottom.

“Am I going to be paying too much?” he said, asking the question he always hears from buyers.

Mr. Ogle said buyers and sellers just need to be realistic and “not be afraid of all this doom and gloom.”

“I’m quite happy with the year,” he said. “I had my best year ever.”

– Scott Daugherty

No. 8: Bay Bridge accident

In mid-May, a seven-vehicle crash on the Bay Bridge stoked the fears of residents on both sides of the bay.

Three people died. Two were injured. Traffic slammed to a halt for eight hours, and months later the driver who caused the pileup escaped criminal charges only to be hit with a civil suit by the family of two of the crash victims.

The tragedy also yanked into open air questions about the safety of the bridge, the state’s ability to deal with a real disaster there and what would happen to commuters and commerce across the bay if the bridge spans were damaged.

The accident started when a homemade flatbed trailer pulled by Stephen Adam Burt, 46, of Rockville, came unhitched from his 2000 Lincoln Navigator. He was driving westbound on the Bay Bridge on May 10 at about 4:20 p.m.

According to investigators, the trailer veered into the eastbound lane and forced Jonathan R. Orff, 19, of Millington, who was driving a 2004 Ford pickup truck, to swerve. The truck hit the four-by-six trailer and started a chain-reaction crash.

Two pickups, one tanker hauling animal fat, one tow truck, one van, an SUV pulling the four-by-six flatbed trailer, and a passenger vehicle were involved in the crash, Maryland Transportation Authority Police said.

Mr. Orff was killed, as were his father, Randall R. Orff, 47, and James H. Ingle, 44, a former Crofton resident who still worked in west county. Two others were injured.

An investigation found Mr. Burt did not use a pin to lock the tongue coupler and that the safety chains were too long. He was not charged by police, but in November the family of Mr. Orff and his son sued him and the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the bridge.

Marylanders kept asking questions.

What if one of the vehicles hit was carrying fuel or another dangerous substance? Are authorities prepared to deal with the environmental and structural disasters that would follow?

Plus, losing the bridge could jeopardize emergency aid between Anne Arundel and Queen Anne’s counties and cripple movement to and from the eastern shore – is the state prepared for such a disaster?

The crash and the lives lost were tragic, but eye-opening, and perhaps it will be a wake-up call.

– Elisabeth Hulette

No. 9: Leopold’s first year

County Executive John R. Leopold campaigned on his independence and his willingness to lead.

But the former state delegate’s outspoken nature drew plenty of fire in his first year in office. Dedicated to holding down the county budget, Mr. Leopold has faced off with both the county school system and local non-profits and heard a earful from the County Council a couple times.

“When you say no, sometimes you aren’t as popular, but I have a responsibility to be fiscally responsible,” Mr. Leopold said Friday, believing most county citizens support his efforts. “I ran with that commitment. I’d be remiss if I didn’t work to curtail spending.”

While drafting this year’s budget, Mr. Leopold denied Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell his request for a $135 million budget increase over 2006 – Mr. Leopold proposed a $57 million increase instead -and nixed $3.1 million in grants to nonprofits, calling them “political handouts.” “I’m ve

ry concerned that without the resources to do the job that we’re called upon to do, that this system will face a tipping point,” Dr. Maxwell told reporters shortly after the budget was unveiled in May.

After some public outcry and conferring with the County Council, Mr. Leopold agreed to a $62.7 million increase for the schools and restored $850,000 in grants. Mr. Leopold stressed 49.9 percent of the county budget went to schools in 2007, the highest percentage in history.

County Councilman Ron Dillon Jr. (R-Pasadena) said there is always some give and take in drafting a budget and noted requests usually outpace funds

“That’s an issue that will always be around,” he said.

But in general, Mr. Dillon praised the county executive.

“I think so far things are going well,” he said.

In all, Mr. Leopold said he is proud of his first year in office, listing dozens of achievements. He noted land preservation efforts including the purchase of parcels in Waysons Corner, Crownsville and Gambrills; environmental efforts including the changing of state laws to help with the prosecution and fining of offenders and a countywide ban on panhandlers.

Critics, however, say Mr. Leopold is far from perfect. While the county executive proposed a new fee to fight stormwater runoff earlier this year, several county councilman complained he didn’t go far enough.

When Mr. Leopold proposed the so-called SMART fund in September, it levied fees only on new construction at a rate of 25 cents per square foot of impervious surface it creates – such as parking lots, buildings or other structures that prevent stormwater from soaking into the ground.

The fund has gone through several variations since then – with some councilman wanting to levy fees on all county property owners – but none have passed.

– Scott Daugherty

No. 10: Academy scandals

While the Naval Academy is noted for recruiting the best and the brightest for its student body, faculty and staff, it hit some snags this year that left the hull a bit dinged and dented.

In fact, 2007 may be remembered as the year of sex, deceit and food shortages.

“It has been a good year overall for the midshipmen and the Naval Academy, and the few disappointments have been dealt with appropriately,” said academy spokesman Cmdr. Ed Austin.

Earlier this month, John Thomas Matthew Lee, 42, a lieutenant commander and a Catholic priest assigned to the Naval Academy from 2003 to 2006, was sentenced to two years in a military prison after pleading guilty to committing forceful sodomy.

Among other crimes, Lee admitted to forcing a midshipman to have sex with him when he was a priest at the academy.

Last month, a military jury sentenced a Navy doctor to 46 months in the brig for secretly taping midshipmen engaged in various sex acts while guests at his Annapolis area home.

Kevin J. Ronan, a pediatrician and a commander who had 16 years in the Navy, was the 4,400-member Brigade of Midshipmen’s chief medical officer and served as some athletic teams’ physician from 2002 until his assignment ended in June 2006.

In the same Washington courtroom in April, a military jury convicted then-Midshipman 1st Class Kenny Ray Morrison, a senior reserve football linebacker from Texas, of forcing a female midshipman to have sex with him in a Washington hotel in early 2006.

The jury sentenced Morrison to two years in the brig, but acquitted him of sexually assaulting another then-midshipman at an Annapolis area home.

Lastly, 2007 may be remembered as the year of food shortages at the Naval Academy.

In the fall, the academy’s new superintendent, Vice Adm. Jeffrey L. Fowler, ordered that midshipmen would eat substantially more of their meals each week in the academy’s mess hall.

Only, somebody failed to order enough food.

Some mids and their parents said the food shortages lasted several days, but Adm. Fowler said it was only for one day, a Saturday.

At a quarterly meeting of the academy’s civilian oversight board earlier this month, the board’s chairman asked if the academy needed more money from the Pentagon to feed the midshipmen properly.

“We are pretty close to making the case for that, I think,” Adm. Fowler said.

– Earl Kelly

Copyright © 2007, Capital Gazette Communications, Inc.