By Sam Smith
U.S Rep. Chris Van Hollen on Monday continued to acquaint himself with the issues and concerns facing his newest constituents in the areas of the Maryland’s 8th Congressional District added in last year’s redistricting. Van Hollen toured parts of Carroll and Frederick counties, traditionally conservative constituencies that could trouble the Democrat in the upcoming election against Republican Ken Timmerman.
The five-term incumbent formerly represented the lower part of Montgomery County and a slice of Prince George’s County, a heavily Democratic district.
“Compared to the southeastern portion of his district in the denser suburbs in Montgomery County close to D.C., we have a fair number of issues that are related to rural economic development, land preservation and a different set of environmental concerns, public transportation and roads,” said former Frederick County Commissioner Kai Hagen.
Van Hollen said he is no stranger to the issues of the region, although the turf he hopes to represent includes more farmland, more small municipalities and spans three different counties.
No stranger to the issues
“It’s important to meet with people and understand what their priorities are and how we can be helpful,” Van Hollen said. “The current district already had more municipalities than any other district in the state of Maryland,” 20 in all, from Thurmont in the north to Takoma Park in the south.
“In respect to the rural areas, I have actually worked a lot with land conservation issues but also making sure farmers have the support they need to continue their agricultural operations but do so in a way that protects the [Chesapeake] Bay,” the congressman said.
Over half of Maryland farms are 50 acres or less, and it has been a struggle for small to midsized farms to maintain economic stability said Will Morrow, farm manager of Whitmore Farms in Emmitsburg.
Morrow said there has been a continuing frustration in the sustainable agriculture community because existing organizations, such as the Farm Bureau, do not share the same approach. But with the creation of farm groups like Future Harvest Casa, the sustainable agriculture interests are taking part in the discussions in Washington, he said.
“We realize that the laws and the policies coming out of Washington do affect our businesses, and we are not being represented by the farm groups that are currently on that stage,” Morrow said. “In all, what we are really looking for isn’t necessarily more subsidies, more subsidies. We are looking for a more level playing field with other sectors of agriculture which are getting more than their lion’s share. More often than not, the northern part of Frederick County is ignored by the Dems but [Van Hollen] has a lot of supporters out here.”
Van Hollen was the author of a provision in the last Farm Bill that provided more funding to farmers within the Chesapeake Bay watershed to help them grow crops in a manner that will not harm the bay.
“One of the biggest sources of pollution has been agriculture runoff,” Van Hollen said. “If you are a farmer, you are looking to be competitive. It is important to have some help. We all have an interest in protecting the bay, so we all have an interest in helping farmers with the additional costs necessary.”
Converting to grass-based grazing
Dairy is the major type of farming in Frederick County. The Chesapeake Bay watershed provision Van Hollen sponsored helped convert some Frederick farms from corn-based feed to grass-based grazing pastures, an expensive switch but beneficial to the environment.
“Having that permanent coverage is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment and erosion,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation restoration scientist Rob Schnabel, along for the tour.
Schnabel said that there have been a number of new farmers that have bought old crop land that they are trying to convert to pastures. However, they are not eligible to take advantage of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program in the Farm Bill.
“One of the things we are doing at the state level is, we are hoping to take some of the cover crop money and put some of it towards pasture establishment,” Schnabel said. “We want to change the law so that some of that money can be used. Right now you can’t take advantage of EQUIP if you have a farm with no animals on site even though that crop land has significant water quality issues.”
Renovating Middletown water lines and streets
Van Hollen toured downtown Middletown, one of the 20 municipalities in the district, 13 of them added by redistricting. Middletown is in the midst of its Main Street redevelopment that has already brought three new small businesses to the town.
However, the redevelopment must replace the 100-year-old water lines that have caused safety issues with drinking water and water pressure for firefighting. The town is in the process of replacing half of the water lines at its own expense.
Middletown Burgess John Miller said he would like to see federal funding to help the town repave Main Street along Route 40 and add sidewalks to make it pedestrian friendly and more attractive to potential new businesses.
“You and I know that if you drive from here to D.C. or here to Ocean City, you will see [Interstate] 270 being paved,” Miller said. “Worthy project, but when you talk about a roadway that hasn’t been rebuilt in 75 years that could have been well spent in small towns and municipalities to a much a greater good.” (Gov. Martin O’Malley severely cut the municipalities’ share of Highway User revenues in two recent budgets.)
Middletown has received federal funding in the past to create a Main Street bypass, however the funds could not be matched and the bypass was never built.
“The question is whether some of those federal funds could be used here together with state funds to help their Main Street renovation,” Van Hollen said.
Hagen: congressman won’t win Frederick, Carroll
Hagen, who lost his 2010 reelection bid to an all Republican slate, does not expect Van Hollen to win a majority of the votes in Frederick and Carroll counties, but he said that he does expect Van Hollen will win re-election.
“If northern Frederick County is going to be represented by a Democrat, it’s good that it’s going to be somebody that is not an extremist and really does listen and really does want to represent all the people in his district,” Hagen said. “I’m sure some right-wingers would describe him as a way-out-there liberal from where they want to be. But if you look at the record, he is a thoughtful moderate on a lot of those issues.”