Green of the valley vs. the ways of man


August 07, 1993|By TOM HORTON

John Erickson looks at the 95 acres of tasseling corn and forested creek bottom rolling greenly westward from Falls Road just outside the Baltimore Beltway and says to himself:

"Twelve cows and $500."

Which is, he claims, about all the land will feed annually, and all it provides in property tax because of an agricultural zoning designation.

Mr. Erickson says this Baltimore County cornfield would yield a thousand jobs and $2 million a year in property taxes, if only the county and residents of the Green Spring Valley would come to their senses and allow the rezoning he seeks.

He would build a 2,500-unit retirement complex on this last undeveloped corner at Falls and Greenspring Valley roads, a facility for which he already has 1,000 requests from area seniors, says the founder of the Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville.

Just 75 feet across Falls Road, the modern world has arrived: gas pumps, liquor stores, Realtors, deli, banking, shopping, public water and sewer lines.

To let that cornfield, already irrevocably engulfed by change, continue to sit there idly seems to Mr. Erickson almost a personal affront.

In a very different way, the field has been an affront to Edgar Lucas for about 40 years.

"It never should have been for sale," he says. His elegant horse farm adjoins it on the other side, from where the Green Spring Valley begins its spectacular westward run, a miles-long corridor of countryside improbably retained amid some of the nation's most intensively developed suburbia.

In 1951, Mr. Lucas' family told a trusted land agent to buy the field as a permanent open-space buffer after they heard it was on the market for the first time in the 20th century.

The very next day, the Realtor turned up as one of a development syndicate that bought the tract for $44,000, says Mr. Lucas.

Over the years it was considered for various uses, from malls to a Cross Keys-style community. But in the early 1960s, a development plan for the field spurred area residents to put up $300,000 to create the visionary Plan for the Valleys (Green Spring, Worthington and Caves).

Magazine lauded the results

The results were lauded by Fortune Magazine in a 1970 issue devoted to exploring the country's awakening environmental movement. The valleys initiative was called "one of the most fascinating innovations in protection of the environment . . . an effort that should provoke study all over the U.S."

More than two decades later, Fortune's assessment seems truer than ever. Despite tremendous population growth in the region, nearly 75 square miles of land has retained most of the charm and open space it had when the century began.

More than a thousand families, with donations ranging from $25 to $1,000 a year, support their own private Valleys Planning Council, and county planners have adopted many of the land-use concepts in the original valleys plan.

Field still a sore spot

But the cornfield at the southwest corner of Falls and Greenspring Valley roads, physical and psychological gateway to the Green Spring Valley, remains a sore spot. Though its zoning now allows a maximum of only one home per 50 acres, the field was bought in 1986 by developer James J. Ward 3rd for $1.7 million -- and later optioned to Mr. Erickson, who says he will pay Mr. Ward $5 million for the tract if the retirement complex is allowed there.

The valley people, some of whom had offered $1.5 million earlier to buy the parcel for preservation, say they will fight development there forever; and in planning hearings so far, the county has sided with them.

Mr. Erickson says they strike him as selfishly wanting to preserve a lifestyle that few others can afford. "I saw their [Valleys Planning Council] newsletter recently," he says, "and it started: '1992 was a great year for the valleys -- nothing happened.' Well, I'd say to them, get a life. In the rest of the world, schools are getting crowded, highways are clogged and waiting lists for retirement homes are growing longer, and we've all got to help solve the problems."

"Erickson thinks we're crazy, but that land is doing exactly what it's meant to be doing," says Margaret Worrall, director of the Valleys Planning Council. "It's been farmed forever; nearly half of it is wetlands and it protects a trout stream [the upper Jones Falls]. Additionally, it is within the master plans of both the valleys and the county as open space."

The land is indeed on the edge of intensive development all around, she says, "but there's always something on the edge. There has to be an edge, and you have to draw the line somewhere."

She is right. Key to the ruin that Maryland and America make of so much of their open space is the remarkable penchant we have for constantly redefining the edge, redrawing the line, never being able to say, "enough."

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