A Town Wonders Which Way to Go

COMMENT

April 30, 1995|By MIKE BURNS

It was a weekend of pride for Havre de Grace, one that gave a strong boost to the town's efforts to promote itself as a waterfront tourism center.

President Clinton chose the historic Harford County setting to deliver his Earth Day message from the wooden Promenade, where the Chesapeake and Susquehanna merge, facing the 168-year-old Concord Point Lighthouse. The pictures of the event, carried across the country by news media, showed off the town at its best.

Even the intermittent drizzle did not dampen the enthusiasm of the large crowd and the parade of environmentalists and politicos who took part in the ceremony. The Havre de Grace High School band played with undiminished gusto, getting a deserved thumbs-up from Mr. Clinton.

The president honored local and national environmentalists, including former U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, the father of Earth Day. While his speech focused on the expected political diatribe against the deregulation juggernaut of the Republican Congress, Clinton also spoke of progress in protecting the natural world since the first Earth Day 25 years ago.

The next day, in near perfect spring weather, four full-sailed skipjacks raced over the waters in what the town hopes will be an annual race.

While the historic oyster dredgers are a fixture of maritime events along the lower parts of the Chesapeake, their appearance in Havre de Grace restored a touch of the city's past. (Recent restoration of the skipjack Martha Lewis, which is now docked here, has helped to build on that local history.)

The Saturday outing was, in fact, more congenial to enjoyment of Havre de Grace's environmental offerings than the drizzly, security-clogged visit of Mr. Clinton, even if that was the first documented appearance of a sitting president in the town since Thomas Jefferson.

President Clinton didn't use the occasion to hand out any money for Havre de Grace, the kind of grant announcement that frequently accompanies a presidential visit outside the environs of greater Washington. The Maritime Museum fund-raising campaign, for one, could use some pork-barrel help.

But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working with the town and Harford County on a nature tourism project that could mean federal dollars coming to the municipal waterfront. That would be a major tourism development that would nicely mesh with the Promenade, the waterfront museums and the popular marina for the sailing crowd.

Havre de Grace is a small town that well knows its storied past but is cautiously, nervously searching for its future.

It would like to remain a small town, but with more money to fund its growing needs. That means growth, either in residential developments or in tourism traffic or in industrial facilities. And residents are split among their support for these different directions.

The proposal for an auto racecourse, on land that would be annexed by the municipality, is intensely divisive of the community. Supporters see it as a new source of tourist trade and income. Opponents claim the project would generate noise and traffic problems, destroying the quiet waterfront image that they wish to preserve.

Ideas for a nursing home complex or housing developments in that same area have prompted the same kinds of conflicting ZTC responses. Proponents favor them as a less intrusive growth that fits in with the existing pattern of the community. But the heightened demands for city services and facilities, and the net long-term loss to the town treasury from pure residential growth, is of concern to others.

The latest objective is to attract low-impact light industry to the area. That would presumably mean less traffic and demand for public services, higher revenues and lower visibility in the community as a whole. The problem is that everyone is competing for that type of development.

Havre de Grace would have pursued any such prospect long ago, had it been available. This chimera is not about to become reality just because the town finds problems with alternative growth plans.

Havre de Grace is not a community that is uniquely defined, whose character is singular and overwhelmingly of one sort.

The charming colonial town has a chemical factory in its midst, along with other industries.

The central hospital is decidedly underused and the operators want to move out.

The hushed tranquility cited by town boosters is often rocked by the thunderous boom of artillery testing from nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground, as Commander-in-Chief Clinton found out during his speech.

The challenge for the town and its 10,000 residents is to shape the changes to best serve an organic community, one that will need growth to thrive.

The municipal election Tuesday will help to define the town's future course. Especially as it relates to expansion by annexation of adjacent lands, which seems a likely development.

The new town officials will be asked to approve the comprehensive plan that designates land uses for the community, and to consider enlarging the wastewater treatment plant, which is near capacity.

These vital issues for Havre de Grace illustrate just how directly the concerns of Earth Day affect our daily lives.

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

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