Environmentalists' varied voices Diverging decisions: The environmental groups that opposed a Disney theme park in Virginia have supported transforming the center of Silver Spring into a huge office-hotel-shopping complex.

On the Bay

March 29, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

ASK ANYONE to free-associate with the terms "environmentalists" and "development," and it's a good bet most would think of "against" or "opposed."

It is a simplistic and increasingly outdated assumption. Consider the ways leading environmental groups have handled two competing visions of how to preserve the bay region's heritage and natural resources.

First was Disney's America, a giant new theme park, residential and commercial development proposed near Civil War battlefields around Manassas, Va., in the Prince William County countryside.

There, the concerted opposition of environmental and historic preservation groups was instrumental in Disney's abruptly pulling the plug a year and a half ago.

It was a stinging defeat for the development policies of Gov. George Allen and county officials, whose most critical question of Disney's mega-plan was, "How soon?"

Lost in their bitter postmortems was the fact that most environmental groups opposed the location, not the theme park, and had proposed 32 alternative sites.

Which brings us to the American Dream town center, an equally ambitious development proposed for 28 acres in the heart of Silver Spring in Montgomery County.

The Ghermezian brothers, Canadian mall builders, envision a huge complex of offices, hotels, entertainment and shopping districts that would transform a wilted old suburban center into a regional magnet, attracting millions of visitors annually.

It does not, in fact, sound so different from Disney's America -- so how come in February virtually all the same environmental groups that allied to fight Disney came out publicly in support of pressing ahead with American Dream?

For the 13 groups that make up the Washington Regional Network for Livable Communities (WRN), it was not a decision made easily.

For four of WRN's members (Sierra Club, Audubon Naturalist Society, Natural Resources Defense Council and Clean Water Action), the statement "commending" the developer was controversial enough internally that they issued separate releases, supporting "the process" and "the concept."

"AstroTurf greens," one local environmental activist labeled the WRN members in a column in the Takoma Park Voice. Other Silver Spring residents expressed alarm that the groups would support something they felt was too big, too risky and liable to wreck their communities.

One meeting, where concerned locals made a last-ditch effort to sway WRN, was wrenching, recalls Kristin Pauly, an environmental planner with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which supports American Dream.

How could the environmental groups back such a monument to excessive consumption, replete with indoor wave pool, ice rink and theme hotels?

This was the same developer that had built the world's largest shopping mall, in Edmonton, Alberta, and the mammoth Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.

"It was a moral argument and it made a point that was very unsettling for many of us," Ms. Pauly said.

The WRN members had a point to make, too: that economic development and environmental aims must not always be antagonistic.

"We do recognize that there are legitimate local concerns; but I got a feeling for what it's like to be a developer -- no project or process is ever going to be perfect," Ms. Pauly said.

And, compared with Disney's America, American Dream comes a lot closer to perfection. Consider these contrasting environmental impacts:

Disney and its related spinoff development would have usurped more than 10,000 acres of rural open space, farmland, forest and wetlands. American Dream, by redeveloping a wilted suburban center, would take away not a single natural acre.

Up to 5 million pounds of sediment a year would have washed into the bay from Disney, along with up to 90,000 pounds a year of polluting nitrogen runoff. The Silver Spring project would produce little sediment and a few hundred pounds of nitrogen.

Disney, 15 miles from any urban center, would have generated an extra 100,000 daily car trips. American Dream, near mass transit, would generate perhaps 20,000 car trips a day.

Most Disney employees would have had long commutes by car, excluding many who needed jobs most. American Dream is in the heart of an area where thousands of potential employees live.

The Silver Spring project just won an important preliminary approval from Montgomery County and must now secure financing and a host of local and state permits.

Large as it is, the development is just a small example of what must be incorporated into every level of planning for land use throughout the bay watershed.

Simply put, new development must go near existing development, supported by infrastructure like roads and sewers; and jobs must go where the job-seekers are.

Only in that way do we have any chance of accommodating the next million Marylanders who will arrive during the next 15 to 20 years without degrading our quality of life and the bay.

I suspect that the large projects, such as Disney's America and Silver Spring's American Dream are, by their very visibility, the easy ones on which to say yea or nay.

More difficult will be applying the same wisdom to the incremental madness, the house-by-house sprawl, the piecemeal strip developments, the nibbling at our resources and heritage.

Pub Date: 3/29/96

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