Mount Airy is at a crossroads, literally and figuratively.
A small town in Carroll's southwest corner with a population of 3,762, it is being buffeted by growth taking place all around it. Its planners and politicians are working to develop a strategy to preserve its small-town feel and identity while allowing it to grow.
Many of the town's problems can be traced to its location. The line between Frederick and Carroll counties divides the town in half -- right down Main Street. The Howard County line sits less than a mile from the southern end of town, and the northern sliver of Montgomery County also is about a mile from town.
Development in all four counties has a tremendous impact on Mount Airy, and yet none of these counties has considered the full implication of its development decisions on the town. As a result, the town has decided to determine its own destiny.
Mount Airy is turning into a commercial hub for the surrounding counties. People shopping and visiting libraries, doctors and senior centers result in a steady stream of cars through a network of streets that was designed to handle primarily local traffic. Main Street, a two-lane, tree-lined road, has become a major thoroughfare clogged with cars during most of the day.
Being a regional crossroads is nothing new for Mount Airy. During its early history, the town served as a small market center on the turnpike that linked Frederick and Baltimore, and in the early 19th century, it was an important spur of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
During this period, it was surrounded by farms, and the $l population was rather sparse. Today, the farmland is turning into subdivisions, the population is skyrocketing. Nearly 27,000 people live within 10 miles of the town's center.
All these people use cars to transport themselves.
In an effort to develop a strategy to cope with the population and automobile growth, Mount Airy commissioned a town plan several years ago. A consultant began work on the plan, but the town council and mayor decided to hire a full-time planner to work on it. The proposal was released to the public last month.
Town Planner Teresa Bamburger, who had been an architect with the large Baltimore architectural firm RTKL, has devoted a major section of the plan to ways to lessen the impact of the explosive growth occurring outside the town.
One of the basic thrusts is to control automobiles so that the needs of people -- rather than of cars -- dictate Mount Airy's future.
To protect the town from being overrun by traffic, the plan calls for completing two new roads that will take traffic that is merely passing through off Main Street. Instead of an unpleasant, congested part of town, Main Street would become the town's center again, attracting businesses and people.
To differentiate the town from the surrounding countryside, Ms. Bamburger's plan calls for defining the boundaries of the town more clearly. These boundaries are important, according to the plan, because they will define "the community" within the town. In the past, town boundaries were easy to define. Where the town's buildings ended and the farm fields began were the boundaries.
With the sprawling suburban development created to suit the automobile, boundaries are less distinct. As developers plunk down one cookie-cutter subdivision after another along major arteries, there is no sense of boundaries and hence little sense of community.
Mount Airy's plan tries to create boundaries by using existing developments, streets, greenbelts and farms. These features will help Mount Airy maintain its identity. Many people living in the newer developments think they live in the town when they don't. The purpose is not to make Mount Airy exclusive, but to prevent it from becoming another Glen Burnie, a small town that lost its identity after surrounding development overwhelmed it.
The town plan also calls for preserving vistas of farmland as a reminder of Mount Airy's roots and relief from the oppressive view of continuous development. The challenge is that much of the farmland lies outside the boundaries of the town, and the county governments of Frederick and Carroll will have to agree to preserve the agricultural and conservation zones around the town.
Aside from analyzing street layouts, topography, historic buildings and other elements that differentiate Mount Airy from its surroundings, Ms. Bamburger points out something that most of us probably don't think about: how garage doors and driveways usually dominate the views from subdivision streets. In the residential sections along Main Street and some of the older streets, garages are in the rear of houses along alleys. Ms. Bamburger points out that the streetscape is improved when cars are not parked on parking pads in front of the houses and their fronts are not dominated by large garage doors.
Mount Airy's proposed plan sets forth some important policies that place the automobile and the suburban culture it created in their proper places. Automobiles are necessary means of transportation in towns like Mount Airy, but they have to be seen as only a means to an end.
These small towns existed long before the automobiles. As development and growth progress, towns like Mount Airy force us to think about policies to protect and preserve these towns' best qualities for their current and future residents.
Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.