Growth experts to lend hand At an impasse, county turns to international analysts for fresh look

'Visiting land-use doctors'

Volunteers to observe for a week, report on farm-subdivision issue

September 27, 1998|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,SUN STAFF

In the southern part of Anne Arundel County -- where farms have been going under for at least a decade and subdivisions are sprouting in their place -- growth and development are hotly debated.

Now, in an effort to find a compromise and get unbiased outside perspectives, an innovative program called the Countryside Exchange is bringing in a group of world-renowned growth and development experts.

"In a nutshell, these people are going to bring their outside professional expertise to bear on local problems," said Fran Flanigan, executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, one of several organizations sponsoring the exchange. "They are going to come in and act as diagnosticians, or visiting land-use doctors, if you will."

The Countryside Exchange, a concept used throughout the United States, Canada and Europe since the late 1980s, brings together international teams of volunteer professionals who work with communities on issues such as farmland preservation, growth management, intergovernmental cooperation, quality of life, tourism development and watershed planning.

The eight professionals from Canada, England, Scotland, Wales and the United States spend one week of intensive study in a community, touring the area and meeting with residents, government officials and civic organizations. At the end of the week, the team presents its recommendations at a public meeting and in a written report.

To get the flavor of Anne Arundel, the visitors will fly over the southern part of the county, visit a marina, tour a farm and new housing development, and sit in a traffic jam. And at the end of it all, "they'll sit back and say, 'Here's what we would do if it were our county,' " Flanigan said.

Where residents may be knee-deep in the controversies over expansion and mired in the minutiae of constant change, outsiders can come in with a fresh perspective and give advice and observations.

"It's great because for once we're not being asked to come up with all the answers," said Churchton resident Lizabeth Shay, a member of the local committee helping to organize the exchange. "For the week, we'll relax and ask the questions."

In preparation for the Oct. 9 to 15 exchange, about 50 south Anne Arundel residents have been discussing key issues they want the visiting professionals to address. These are some of the questions they are asking:

How can the area determine how much growth is appropriate in the south county, and where and when should that growth occur?

How should the area match infrastructure and services to the desired rate of growth?

How can the area retain and recapture agricultural industries and commercial fisheries?

How can the area create and sustain a community identity?

Visiting teams are hand-picked to include experts who best suit a specific area. In south Anne Arundel's case, that includes experts in rural tourism, agricultural conservation, wetlands, coastal planning and growth management.

Maybe the best-selling point of these Countryside Exchanges is that they are essentially free. The experts volunteer their time and pay for their transportation to Anne Arundel. Local residents and businesses donate their food, lodging and in-county transportation.

"It's like having a high-profile consulting group at your disposal, but you don't have to pay for it," Flanigan said. "If you tried to calculate the value of having these people here, it would be astounding."

The exchanges have proved successful. In 1995, a tiny village in eastern Pennsylvania was rapidly becoming a ghost town. As resident Bob Roche put it: "People said you couldn't fix Tamaqua -- it was so broke, in five years it would need a tombstone."

At the end of seven days, a Countryside Exchange team told officials in the former mining town a harsh reality: Coal mining was gone for good and they would have to work with what was left -- the Pocono Mountains, breathtaking scenery, a historic downtown and deep-water reservoirs.

Since then, the town has begun a Rails to Trails project to turn old railroad tracks into biking trails, advertised the town's historic points of interest to draw tourists, erected a mining memorial, begun planning parks around two reservoirs and hired three professionals to work on revitalizing the community.

"It remains to be seen how positive this fall's experience will be for Arundel," Flanigan said, "but certainly the opportunity and potential are there.

"In other places, the sky has been the limit."

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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