Valley's protectors keep sprawl at bay

Space: Residents of Baltimore County's rolling expanse are vigilant of any encroachments, from park toilets to barns.

June 18, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Tucked between Gunpowder Falls State Park and Loch Raven Reservoir is a rolling expanse of green fields and country hamlets defended by residents determined to control the weed of suburban sprawl.

In Long Green Valley -- one of Baltimore County's land preservation priorities -- residents rally against the prospect of flush toilets at soccer fields. And even the construction of a horse barn in this rural area prompts neighbors to spend hours in a zoning fight.

"The balance is very fragile," said Rob Deford, president of Boordy Vineyards, whose family has farmed in the valley since 1938. "What we're afraid of is not what 1,000 homes will do, but the way one person may come in and make it difficult for us to keep farming."

Baltimore County this year made Long Green Valley its top choice for the state's Rural Legacy Program -- a new effort to save large blocks of farmland and open space. Residents who have seen their valley change have been fighting suburban sprawl for 25 years.

Standing on a ridge overlooking the valley, it is easy to understand why Deford and the other residents so adamantly defend their land.

Although the valley is just minutes from Towson, fields of corn and barley stretch out below, and thoroughbred horses graze in a pasture surrounded by white board fences. Frame farmhouses and a few brick mansions dot the landscape.

Long Green Valley is home to Johnny Unitas and Maryland's oldest vineyard. It boasts one of the area's largest orchards, five of the county's 18 dairy farms and several riding stables.

But longtime residents such as Deford say the valley is not like it was. Farmers find it difficult to acquire enough land to make a living. The rail depot from which they once transported tomatoes and milk is now rented to a hair salon and a dog groomer.

"It has become less agricultural and more residential," Deford explained. "It is clearly feeling the pressure from the outside."

The valley has attracted settlers since the mid-1700s when farmers from the coast moved inland to find fertile fields for tobacco, said Elmer Haile, who has written a history of the valley. In the mid-1800s, the farmers were joined by a group of Mennonites from Lancaster, Pa.

Houses amid fields

In the 1960s, subdivisions started to appear in the fields. Then in 1972, plans for a new school in the heart of the valley transformed many of the farmers into community activists. Since then, residents have fought for stricter development rules and started a land trust to preserve prized farms.

"We've had some successes and some reverses," said Charlotte Pine, president of the Long Green Valley Association.

Although most of Long Green Valley is protected by zoning that strictly limits the number of houses that can be built there, land disputes continue.

When the county decided to sell Merryland horse farm this year, the community association went to court to try to stop the sale.

The farm, once a premier training and breeding facility, was given to the county in 1993 to to be used as a horse arena, and residents argued the county had a moral obligation to keep the land as a park.

The county nevertheless sold the land at auction last week and promised the $1.075 million the sale brought will go to protect more land in the valley.

The Long Green Valley Association is turning its attention to a proposal to put restrooms on the Hydes Road soccer fields. Residents fear the restrooms will be the beginning of more intense development of the site in the heart of their valley.

"One of the biggest fears is the incremental growth," said Catherine Ebert, director of the Long Green Valley Conservancy, a land trust.

Little battles

"If you don't fight the little battles, the thing mushrooms," said Carol Trela, secretary of the Long Green Valley Association.

In Long Green Valley, even a plan to build a barn can cause controversy.

One dispute pits a resident who is building a barn to breed and train horses against neighbors who argue that the structure is a commercial facility that will create pollution and traffic.

"We've had too much development for my liking," said Susan Yoder, whose family has been farming in the valley for six generations.

Yoder worries about the impact the barn, with its 20 stalls, will have on a stream that runs through her family's dairy farm, and says the horse operation will be too large for the land it is on.

But Phoebe Devoe, a horse trainer who grew up in a subdivision at the edge of the valley and is building the barn, says she has the same interest in preserving the area as the farmers who have lived on the land for generations.

"I love this area," she said.

The community organizations are staying out of the barn dispute and focusing on other pending zoning battles, the county's new master plan, and the Rural Legacy program.

This fall, the association will try to persuade the county to pass even more restrictive zoning in the valley and will resist efforts to ex pand the nearby community of Jacksonville.

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