Harford's Lost Identity

April 11, 1992

When Harford County created its "development envelope" more than a decade ago, it mapped in new roads, sewer and water lines, but forgot something a blueprint can't show: a sense of place.

County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann is concerned that everyone calls Harford's Route 24 corridor "the Route 24 corridor." A nice place to drive, but would you want to live there?

Actually, many people -- more than 40,000 -- now do. As Harford's population boomed over the past decade, most of the new subdivisions sprouted up along a new state highway, sometimes called "New 24," since it supplanted the former Route 24. While the county's population grew by 25 percent during the '80s, the largest census tracts in the growth area more than doubled in size.

Affordable housing drew people who commute to Baltimore, and even Washington. The newcomers were drawn to subdivisions incongruously named after "woods," "lakes" and "hills," but not to a place with a village, parks or focus. The closest the development corridor has to a town meeting hall: the deli counter of Klein's supermarket.

In an attempt to correct this void, Ms. Rehrmann recently named a committee of Harford developers, community activists, engineers and others to meet monthly to discuss such matters.

The county executive is well-versed in the importance of infrastructure. She talks of the "Big Inch" -- that's a water line -- and "Sod Run" -- a sewage treatment plant -- as facilely as most people order lunch. But her comfort with numbing detail hasn't obliterated her perception that giving residents a stake in where they live is critical.

Just ask the Abingdon Volunteer Fire Department. Even though its coverage area has become more dense off Route 24, it has had trouble wooing donations and volunteers; many newcomers aren't sure the unit belongs to "them." People who don't have a feel for their communities are less apt to contribute to make the county a better place.

Surely, that emotional tie will come more easily as schools open and become community centers. A second school in the corridor is being built now and a third is being planned.

Sense of place is a nebulous quality, hard to measure, not easy to create. But Ms. Rehrmann is prescient enough to realize its importance.

Harford's largest town, Aberdeen, is in the midst of a prideful centennial celebration. When the Route 24 corridor turns 100 in 95 years or so, will anyone care?

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