Neighborhoods, like children, should be able to change and prosper

June 07, 1998|By Elise Armacost

Neighborhoods, I have concluded, are a lot like children.

Sometimes, especially when they are endearingly small, you wish it were possible to stop time -- to keep them just as they are -- though you know they are bound to grow and change. Sometimes the change occurs without our realizing it, at which point it is useless to try to make them fit a mold that has already been broken.

Communities, like kids, are tougher and more adaptable than we think. But both are vulnerable to outside influences. The tricky part is discerning which can and should be fought and which can't or should not be.

Here in the Baltimore area, where suburbanization has irrevocably altered many towns and hamlets, it is no wonder that people automatically gird for battle against any change. A Friendly's in downtown Catonsville, tot lots in Columbia, a megachurch in Davidsonville, a Wal-Mart on the Reisterstown Road commercial corridor -- they've all generated opposition among neighbors who fear for their quality of life.

This phenomenon has become contemptuously known as NIMBYism -- "not in my back yard" -- and not without reason. The heart of Catonsville is a perfectly sensible place for a Friendly's. You should expect big-box stores on commercial strips. A tot lot is an amenity, not a threat. Too often, too, residents sit by for years while property is designated for development, raising a ruckus only after someone invests the money to build something.

Still, in this era of the chain store, the cookie-cutter house and the automobile, communities -- especially those which have managed to hold on to unique identities -- have legitimate concerns about development whose size, look and impact is incompatible, even if the use itself is desirable.

Consider the little Catonsville community of Paradise. For several years it has had a Rite-Aid and an adjacent small shopping center that together function as a community hub. But Rite-Aid recently announced plans to overtake the entire shopping center with an enlarged, 24-hour, drive-through drugstore. The neighbors justifiably complained that the size and nature of the project didn't fit.

What kind of drugstore?

Last week Rite-Aid backed off. But what if it had not? Paradise wouldn't have had much recourse. The law says drugstores are allowed there; in Baltimore County and elsewhere, the rules and regulations rarely address whether the drugstore -- or whatever -- looks and acts as if it belongs.

Residents' answer to this problem often is a crackdown on development, period. Even if we agree that governments are too lenient in permitting development in established communities, it is hard to say where a tighter line should be drawn. Variances and exceptions are a common bone of contention. But do we want every snowball stand and home remodeling project subject to public hearing and review? Most would say of course not, but controversy over such things is far from rare.

Blanket opposition to new residential growth or commercial enterprise isn't reasonable. It's selfish to deny others the life we enjoy, and the right stores and businesses do not destroy a community; they enhance it.

Ensuring good neighbors

In Glyndon, the northwest Baltimore County community where I live, I am told the community once opposed a small Santoni's grocery. Today, Santoni's is a hub of the neighborhood. It participates in every community event. It's the place where you run into people.

The question is how to help communities make reasonably sure that they are getting a good neighbor. They can work with the developer. Other than that, all they have is zoning. And zoning, as Baltimore County Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller notes, "is so inadequate." It's just a list of allowable uses. "It says nothing about how big should something be. What about the hours of operation? What should the thing look like?"

One obvious solution is more extensive use of design standards, tailored to a community's personality. Historic areas maintain their flavor this way. In Victorian Cape May, N.J., condos and a new bank blend seamlessly. The rules don't have to be elaborate in more typical communities. In Baltimore County, restrictions on size and materials in Hereford and Jarrettsville should protect the character of these little villages.

We need to be realistic. We can't expect to wall out new residents or return to the days of the general store.

But we should expect to be able to steer our communities, like our children, toward the future, and still be glad to call them our own.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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