St. Timothy's homework puts nature to the test

This Just In...

April 08, 1996|By DAN RODRICKS

Here's a class project for the girls of St. Timothy's School: Save the Earth. More specifically, save the Earth directly around your school -- the 75 acres of land your Board of Trustees wants to sell off for 64 house lots.

Why? Because it will be a good learning experience. Your school is in Stevenson, one of the Baltimore area's last major patches of green -- the Greenspring Valley -- and its land is not only a financial asset to St. Timothy's, it's an aesthetic asset to the community. Every decision to sell off land, cut down trees, carve out a road and build more houses diminishes that patch of green -- not just for people who live near it, but for all of us who see the valleys north of Baltimore as a buffer against the juggernaut of development. So, girls, you take on this assignment to make sure St. Timothy's is doing the right thing.

Of course, some people always consider development to be the right thing; they think every piece of land not used for agriculture ought to be used for development -- houses, office buildings, retail centers. Too many times "open space" is considered a luxury, something nice but not realistic. This is a "grown-up" way of thinking, girls. Now, it's time we heard from you.

And girls, if you've seen the plan for "Bridle Ridge," you know that it's a long, L-shaped thing that cuts into the open space in the southern half of St. Tim's off Greenspring Avenue. The Irvine Natural Science Center, popular with school kids and a symbol of our regard for nature, will be adversely affected -- it might even have to move -- because some of the land it uses will be developed.

The trustees of your school have decided this portion of St. Timothy's land holdings is "not needed to fulfill the school's mission."

In other words, they'd rather have the money (even though the demand for private school education is said to be at an all-time high). They want to build up the school's endowment, and they should be praised for thinking about the future.

The fiscal perspective is important to any objective analysis of this proposal; you certainly must take it into consideration. If your private boarding school can't build its endowment the conventional way -- hitting on alumni and other sponsors for further contributions -- and if the fiscal picture is dire, then, girls, you might decide that selling off the land is the best thing for St. Timothy's.

But you should look at the "big picture" first. You should never feel that you're just passing through and what happens to St. Tim's is for grown-ups to decide. And never assume that development is always "for the best."

Let me tell you what's been happening in Maryland.

We pride ourselves on our environmentalism. We point to the Chesapeake Bay and pat ourselves on the back for a supposed job well done. A lot of us have the impression that we are pro-environment and anti-business, that we have strict land-use measures to save open spaces, wetlands included, while keeping development in check.

But I'd like someone to show me where development has been kept in check. I drive around this state a lot, and I see plenty of dumb suburban planning, or no planning at all.

Don't take my word for it, girls. Do your own homework. Call the state Office of Planning.

It'll tell you that sprawl rules in Maryland.

Against the warnings of blue-ribbon commissions and the promises of four governors, we still allow far too much sprawl in this state. It's costly to local jurisdictions -- Carroll County officials want to raise taxes to cover the costs of out-of-control growth -- and it's costly to the environment.

The state wants growth clustered around existing communities, protecting rural and agricultural areas from urbanization and reducing the impact of development on the Chesapeake Bay. But what happens? Sprawl happens. The average size of the typical residential lot has grown by more than a third in Maryland since the mid-1980s. There continues to be a rapid transformation of outlying farmland into low-density subdivisions. There's not enough "smart growth" or new construction in or near older suburbs that already have "infrastructure." (Montgomery County's school population declined by 10,000 between 1980 and 1990, yet the county built 70 schools and abandoned 68, in response to sprawl.)

Girls, believe me, you'd learn a lot from this class project.

Too many times, people drive along, focused on the road ahead, tuned into tunes and tuned out from the world around them. They see bulldozers at work, trees coming down, and assume it's always for the best. They don't think about what we're losing in the process. Your generation, hopefully, will be a little more on the ball about this.

Look, maybe St. Timothy's has a smart plan -- one that maintains environmental integrity while "clustering" growth. Maybe 64 pricey homes along a road is better than 32 real pricey homes all spread out, and that might deserve a thumbs-up.

But maybe the sale of this land isn't necessary. Maybe the woods and fields should just be left alone -- or sold for a lesser sum to the state's Program Open Space -- preserved by the school's wealthy patrons and alumni for the future girls of St. Timothy's, for its neighbors, for the sake of keeping the valley green.

Anyway, I think you ought to look into it -- for extra credit, of course.

Pub Date: 4/08/96

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