Walkersville voters will be heading to the polls Monday to cast a ballot in the town’s triannual election for its burgess and five commissioners.
This year, the town’s five current commissioners — Tom Gilbert, Mary Ann Brodie-Ennis, Michael Bailey, Michael McNiesh and John Zimmerman — are all vying for re-election. They’re joined in the race by Bob Yoder, a 35-year Walkersville resident and retired IT network manager; Russell Winch, a previous commissioner who has served on the town’s planning commission and board of appeals; and Gary Baker, another previous commissioner.
Chad Weddle, who has served as Walkersville burgess since 2015, is running unopposed. He defeated then-commissioners Winch and Don Schildt when they challenged him for the position in 2018.
In a forum on Friday, six of the eight candidates competing to be a commissioner shared information about their backgrounds and discussed a range of hot-button issues facing Walkersville, including residential growth and development, sidewalk repair and maintenance and how to address blighted and vacant commercial properties.
The forum was moderated by the publisher of GladeValley.net, Michael Kuster, who has lived in Walkersville for two decades and serves on the town’s planning commission.
After the candidates introduced themselves and shared why they wanted to be a town commissioner, Kuster asked them to explain their thoughts on residential growth in Walkersville — a topic that has recently been of particular interest to residents, since the town is currently updating its comprehensive plan. This plan, which includes recommended changes to the town’s zoning map and zoning ordinance, is revised every 10 years.
Though Winch and Yoder were both quick to identify themselves as being against residential growth, the other candidates were less absolute in their responses.
Brodie-Ennis said she doesn’t want Walkersville to lose its “small town feel” or its agricultural buffer, but that she appreciates “smart growth.” Meanwhile, Gilbert criticized the efforts of some to label candidates as “pro-growth” or “anti-growth.” He didn’t feel like he fit into either category, he said, but would consider growth that is “measured and controlled, while conditioned on adequate roads, schools and infrastructure when the time comes.”
Though Bailey said he wouldn’t go so far as to call himself “anti-growth,” he added he is currently not in support of any additional residential growth. Walkersville has added a handful of developments in the past five years and though Bailey said the town has been blessed by these new residents, the stress its infrastructure has been experiencing has become clear — Walkersville High School’s capacity is over 100 percent, he said, and the town’s middle and elementary schools’ capacities are hovering near 80 percent.
McNiesh echoed Bailey in his remarks. He grew up in Rockville and remembers Montgomery County before it became heavily developed.
“I don’t want to see that for Walkersville,” he said, “so I’m pretty firmly anti-residential development. There would need to be a lot of changes before I would be willing to change my mind, but I’m never going to say ‘never’ because that’d be foolish.”
When the candidates began their next discussion on the state of sidewalks in the town, Yoder and Winch again found themselves in agreement. They both said sidewalks should be the town’s responsibility and concurred that many were in need of repair.
Currently, the state of sidewalks in the town puts Walkersville at risk for lawsuits, Winch said.
“You plant a tree, tree root comes up, then that’s your problem,” he said. “But if the sidewalk is just not maintained by the town, you trip and fall, Maryland law says you are not at fault, the town is at fault.”
The other candidates didn’t argue about the need for sidewalk maintenance in Walkersville.
They all said they were at least open to the idea of splitting the costs of needed repairs between homeowners and the town. Gilbert suggested dividing the bill in half and giving the homeowner a year to pay their share. If the town budgeted $100,000 for sidewalk maintenance and homeowners collectively chipped in another $100,000, Walkersville could replace about 1,800 slabs — or, about 1.25 miles of sidewalk, Gilbert said.
“That’s something to think about,” he said.
Candidates also discussed the continuing existence of vacant storefronts and blighted properties in Walkersville — an issue everyone agreed was a complicated one.
When it was Bailey’s turn to address listeners, he outlined a “happy path” and an “unhappy path” for how Walkersville could deal with such properties. Last month, he said, the commissioners created an economic development commission, which he hopes will help the town support local businesses already in Walkersville, identify barriers that are preventing new businesses from joining them and craft a plan for bringing those new businesses to vacant properties in the town. This is the happy path, he said.
As for the unhappy one — for residents or property owners resistant to making changes — Bailey said the town should look at actions that have previously been upheld in court, namely purchasing the property or levying taxes and fines. Though Bailey said Walkersville should avoid this option, he added that he has drafted legislation that would keep it open. Under his proposal, if a property is vacant for three years, its owner would start incurring a fine that would increase “exponentially” year after year, he said.
Before the candidates delivered their closing statements, Kuster encouraged residents to come out to vote on Monday.
“I’ve had the pleasure of knowing all these candidates,” Kuster said. “They’re wonderful people, who might not always agree on issues, but their heart is there.”