Valleys council looks to future Land preservationists in Balto. Co. plan to retool for success

November 17, 1996|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

Resting after a victorious effort that rezoned 9,000 more rural Baltimore County acres off-limits to developers last month, the Valleys Planning Council seems like a battleship prepared to turn quickly.

The Towson land preservation group, fueled by cash from wealthy landowners and a radical spirit, and supported by highly restrictive zoning, is plotting which direction to head next.

A variety of development issues is on the horizon: a proposed development of 64 houses on 70 acres at St. Timothy's School in Stevenson; a family farm that may soon go up for sale in Butler; and the continuing battle against Hayfields, a scenic cornfield some fear will become a clone of developer Nick Mangione's Turf Valley Resort & Conference Center in Howard County.

But after nearly 35 years of scrappy fighting to save the 50,000 acres of green space north of Lutherville and west of Interstate 83, members of the nonprofit group say it may be time to retool for the next century.

"We need to be more forward-looking and to go to the next step in land preservation," said valleys council Executive Director John C. Bernstein. "We need a new plan for the valleys to deal with the increased development pressure that no one ever envisioned."

So by early next year, members of the 41-member board are expected to begin exploring ways to tie the organization deeper into the county's consciousness, working more closely with county government, farmers and others concerned with rural preservation, said board president Richard B. Buck.

The group is driven by its members' desire to use a new, holistic approach to deal with all aspects of preservation. Its fundamental goal remains to block the bulldozers idling for a push into the scenic valleys 20 miles from the heart of Baltimore.

It is a challenge facing many rural areas. The council, which has a staff of three, may have found an ally 90 miles away in Chadds Ford, Pa., where the Brandywine Conservancy operates in a brown farmhouse alongside busy, four-lane U.S. 1, between Wilmington, Del., and Philadelphia.

In 30 years, the Brandywine Conservancy has established itself as the nation's premier land preservation group.

Brandywine is a private nonprofit organization that does professional planning and public policy analysis for local townships on a contract and consultant basis.

It has safeguarded the landscape made famous in the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, evolving into a public policy powerhouse with a staff of 19 and a million-dollar annual budget. It has drafted zoning legislation that has been enacted by nearby townships.

Bernstein and three board members visited the conservancy this spring on a fact-finding mission intended to help chart the local group's course.

Valleys Planning Council members realized that to reshape itself, the agency would need at least $50,000 toward an update of its Plan for the Valleys, devised in the early 1960s by landscape expert Ian McHarg.

The center of a new plan would be creation of a "land bank" or revolving fund to buy farmland and development rights.

Easements and transfer of development rights -- used by land preservation groups to save rural acres and maintain land values -- would continue to be highlighted as conservation tools.

Ideally, the Valleys Planning Council staff could concentrate nearly full-time on rural planning issues. Long-range planning could eliminate the need to constantly put out fires, easing staff turnover in the Towson office.

The Brandywine group is a good role model, said T. Courtenay Jenkins III, a valleys council board member who traveled to Chadds Ford.

"On the way home we decided that instead of fighting battles as they come up, let's come to a consensus here -- what do we want? What does this city and county want? How are we going to preserve it?"

Fund raising a priority

For starters, Bernstein said more fund raising must take place.

In the early 1960s, the wealthy residents of the Worthington, Caves and Green Spring valleys raised about $300,000 to start their preservation fight. They spent about $167,000 for McHarg's study, and the council was born.

Today, valleys board members contribute thousands to county politicians, campaign records show, and advise county planning agencies daily.

Over the years, the group has wrestled with private developers, farmers, estates and even Villa Julie College -- a fight that continues as the small, private liberal arts institution tries to expand its campus and enrollment despite its fragile location in the Green Spring Valley.

The group had a key lobbying role in the recent comprehensive county rezoning effort that downsized 9,000 acres in the valleys to allow only one house for each 50 acres.

The group counts among its biggest victories the permanent preservation of 400 acres of farmland through easements this year; preserving a 285-acre farm known as the Lott property near Sparks; and preventing a cornfield near Greenspring Station shopping center in 1992 from becoming a retirement home.

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