How Much Space Will County Need?

COMMENT

February 27, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

Recreation is a word much subject to individual interpretation. It can encompass such sedentary pastimes as reading or making handicrafts, a leisurely stroll around the block or regular trips to the woodpile for another log, a competitive pickup basketball game or organized league baseball. There are

hundreds of other common recreational activities in between and beyond, solitary or team, muscle-wrenching or relaxing, competitive or passive.

For most forms of public recreation, however, we need space. So it is that Harford County is considering what its combined recreational and open space needs will be for the next decade or so, in a document called the Open Space, Land Preservation and Recreation Plan.

A public hearing on the comprehensive plan will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the County Council chambers.

As Harford's population continues to expand, its recreational facilities will be steadily pinched: An additional 30,000 homes are projected to be built here by the year 2010.

The need is not only to find more land for this broad spectrum of recreation, but to find the proper mix of the appropriate facilities to serve various parts of the community.

Actually, Harford has a fair amount of open space for the current population -- an average of 28.6 acres per 1,000 residents, close to the recommended 30 acres standard of the National Recreation Association.

The problem is that too much of that land is "passive" open space, without the ball diamonds, playing fields, courts and courses that are needed for "active" recreation. In that respect, Harford has only 5.8 acres per 1,000 residents, little more than half the space recommended by the recreation association.

We're not talking about certain specialty facilities, such as ice rinks or swimming pools or handball courts. It's just the total acres dedicated to some sort of "active" recreation everywhere in Harford.

It's a conflict of public demands that was recently seen in the development of Hoza Park in Bel Air, where planners tried to provide both types, and satisfied neither camp.

This imbalance of passive vs. active land has come about for a variety of reasons.

First was the amount of money made available for acquiring, building and maintaining these facilities. Active facilities cost a lot more to construct and to keep up than passive recreation lands, and their topographic requirements are more rigid.

Another was the choice of land by developers in deeding open space to the county as a part of their open space commitment: much of it was sloping or uneven or wetlands or otherwise unsuitable for homebuilding -- in other words, the leftovers. These ceded lands were negotiated between developer and county, without any requirement for specific recreation use.

Interest in natural environmental areas has increased tremendously in recent decades, with a vocal demand for untouched lands or at least minimally adapted lands. Nature refuges, open green spaces and forests, walking paths: These are some of the activities favored over the intensive development of sports facilities on public lands.

Adding to that constituency over the years was an older population less interested in playing fields and more supportive of passive types of recreation. But the demographic shift toward a burgeoning younger population over the past decade (reflected in rising school enrollments) has intensified demand for more active facilities.

The school board's action in planning for this projected increase in school buildings also played a role. The board acquired properties for future buildings, with the promise of active recreation facilities made available to the public.

But not all lands were developed, or developed promptly. So the prospect of more ball fields and tennis courts exists, but has not yet been fulfilled (and may not be fulfilled in those designated areas, as school demographic demands continue to change.)

The private role in developing recreational land has also wavered with the uncertain economy.

How many Harford golf courses have been marked on maps and talked about by excited landowners but have never come to fruition? It's happening elsewhere, but Harford has seen more than its share of failed fairways of dreams: There's only one 18-hole public course and one 9-hole layout in the county.

The comprehensive blueprint for Harford's recreational future will look at all possible types of land, including biking and hiking trails along old railroad rights-of-way, and privately developed facilities that are open to the public.

But acquiring more public land while it is still available is essential if the county is to meet escalating demands. The county has about 5,000 acres for all open spaces use, but that will not be sufficient to accommodate the county's growing population, especially as it concentrates in the development envelope.

The county could adopt an Adequate Public Facilities law (such as it has for schools and water) to force developers to set aside land for playing fields, if new housing would overburden existing nearby recreation land.

But such legislation is difficult to enact, and the county will still have to buy land and solicit donations to fill deficiencies.

Wait too long to act, and the land won't be available, for either active or passive recreation.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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