Plan targets older parts of county

October 03, 1994|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore County's problems aren't hard to spot, David Fields says.

More elderly people are living in older, sometimes neglected neighborhoods. School buildings are crowded. Rental communities are unstable. Poverty, crime and drug abuse are increasing.

Except for the city, Baltimore County has the lowest median household income, the slowest income growth and the lowest median home value in the region.

Political pressure has kept tax rates and revenues down, while slow growth has cut off the kind of money that fast expansion has generated in Howard, Carroll and Harford counties.

The issue is what to do about it, and Mr. Fields, the county's former planning director, has been learning about the problems first-hand as he develops a Community Conservation Plan to preserve the county's older neighborhoods and prevent blight.

Mr. Fields, several months into an assignment from County Executive Roger B. Hayden, has completed a preliminary report on which he is seeking comment from county agencies, businesses and communities.

He said the draft report asks, "These seem to be the things that are important. Are we right?" A final report will be based on the responses.

Mr. Fields sees bringing government closer to residents -- partly by moving government functions from the Towson county seat and into communities -- as a key way to address problems.

"You're not going to get people beating down the door to raise taxes," he said. "Government can't do everything."

However, government can lead and help, his draft report concludes.

The Community Conservation Plan is designed to provide tiers of assistance. First, quick help for small problems by making cash grants aimed at cutting red tape. A long-range plan would use the county budget and bond borrowing power in 1996 to provide the big money needed to renew infrastructure and attack growing social problems.

Last week, the county awarded $329,045 in grants of $10,000 or less to neighborhood groups, the first example of the plan's quick-response potential.

But long-range answers aren't found in Towson, Mr. Fields said. They're in older neighborhoods like Halethorpe, Dundalk, Carney and Randallstown clustered around the Beltway. "We have to make community empowerment work," he said.

Donald S. Hawkins, 62, president of Halethorpe Civic Association, sees some of these problems every day in his community near Washington Boulevard and Monumental Road.

For decades, residents there have tried to get their deteriorating roads replaced with modern streets, featuring curbs and gutters, storm drains and better street lights.

Mr. Hawkins' community just got the street lights, and "I now have in my hand, a proposal from the county" to fix the rest, he said. That will take a few more years, but in the meantime, the community just got a $6,447 grant from the county to add to $1,600 it raised to build a pavilion next to its community building.

"It enhances the neighborhood and raises property values," he said.

Mr. Fields said he has found different problems in each section of the county.

For instance, he recently spent two hours listening to people in Baltimore Highlands complain about county inspectors giving tickets to independent truckers who park the cabs of their rigs next to their homes.

"In Towson, people would kill you if you brought a tractor-trailer cab to your house," he said, but Baltimore Highlands residents felt it was proper for people who use the big trucks to make their living.

At a Dundalk meeting, participants worried more about the loss of industrial jobs and what it has meant to their neighborhoods.

Years of economic decline have taken thousands of union jobs, he said, and "people are very frightened" as they realize that no more good 30-year jobs wait after high school.

"They've seen a whole lifestyle disappear," he said. "It's suddenly catching up with everybody. There's no tradition of education or skills" for people to fall back on.

Everywhere, Mr. Fields said, enforcement and inspection issues rankle residents. "People want their immediate needs met."

And in many of these older communities, streets, gutters, alleys and sewers are wearing out. "Research has indicated an important connection between neighborhood neglect and the perception of crime," the study said.

The report said 12 older areas are under study by the Department of Public Works to determine the condition of the county's infrastructure.

Housing is another sore spot. Fewer and fewer low- and moderate-income families can afford to buy homes, according to census figures reprinted in the report. More than 16,000 low-income families pay more than half their monthly incomes for shelter -- meaning they are in danger of becoming homeless. Another 55,000 households pay more than 30 percent of income for housing, which means they may have trouble meeting other needs.

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