Small area plans give citizens a voice


April 23, 2000|By NORRIS WEST

LORRAINE Rohlik of Jessup is helping to decide what her community will look like in the years to come.

Ms. Rohlik and a dozen other devoted residents have been meeting and debating and thinking and planning their community's future for 14 months. Their job as members of the Jessup-Maryland City Small Area Planning Committee is to refine the county's 1997 General Development Plan.

The general development plan is the master plan, but there's nothing minor about the plans being formed by the county's 16 small area committees, from the border of Baltimore to the edge of Calvert County.

These plans deal with smaller chunks of Anne Arundel County, refining the master plan to local tastes.

The dozens of county residents who serve on these committees deserve credit for thrusting themselves into this unusual, grassroots planning process. But it makes sense for them to participate. This is a rare opportunity for them to have a direct impact on local planning and zoning matters down the street or around the corner.

For Ms. Rohlik, serving on the Jessup-Maryland City committee was a way to act instead of react.

"I don't want to be a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) ," she sald Wednesday night, after the group's final meeting before presenting its thick and comprehensive plan for the community of 21,000 at a public forum. "So I figured I had better do something positive instead of becoming one of those people who are always saying, 'no, no, no'"

Wednesday night brought a richly deserved sense of pride and accomplishment. The thoughtful draft plan and discussion made it clear that the group generated lots of good ideas.

The Jessup-Maryland City draft proposes streetscapes, mixed-use zones, more public transportation, environmental protection and historic preservation for specific neighborhoods. Some things may not work. For instance, the county has not yet adopted mixed-use zoning.

Ultimately, the County Council. decides whether to approve or amend all 16 of Anne Arundel's small area plans, which are at various stages. The citizens' recommendations ultimately go to the County Council, which should keep the people's wishes in mind.

The citizens' meetings have produced good, healthy debates among neighbors. It's better to iron out differences at early planning stages. Residents and businesses need to know what to expect. Anne Arundel's small area plans offer enough specifics.

But the best thing is the citizen involvement.

Take Kevin J. McPartland of Jessup. He's married, and his two children attend Jessup Elementary School. As an architect, he's accustomed to planning, but this is on a different scale.

"I thought it would help me to grow professionally, but more, it was an opportunity for me to take a part in my community," he said. "I had no ax to grind, no preset notions of what we should do. But I've learned a lot and everything has worked out just as I had hoped."

Jeanne Mignon, the committee's chairwoman, doesn't have an ax to grind, either, although she has picked up a sword or two.

"When I moved to this county in 1993, I was fighting Mr. [Jack Kent] Cooke, who wanted to put a stadium right next to my new home, and that really made me mad," said Ms. Mignon, of Russett. She has a daughter in college and a son at Meade Middle School.

"Those two experiences taught me a great deal about zoning. It's not only about what is happening where you live, but also what is being built around you."

Alvera Miller of Jessup and Mary Ellen Cooper of Laurel simply want to make the future brighter for people who live and work there.

The Jessup-Maryland City area was developed after the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's Washington route came in 1835, but it has a much richer history. Archeologists have discovered the oldest Paleo-Indian remains in the area. The town of Harmans was named for a German family that immigrated here in 1752 and probably worked as indentured servants before buying and farming 450 acres of land. Bacontown is an African-American community established around the Civil War period. It was named for Maria Bacon, a former slave. The community is still there.

Planning for the future seems like a challenge. The area includes the Maryland House of Corrections, Laurel Race Course, Fort Meade and the National Security Agency.

But the small area committee wants to give the area some character. They hope to establish mixed-use zones with commercial, residential, civic and residential uses. The draft also includes a good idea for transit mixed-use centers that would build around commuter train stations.

Harry Blumenthal, an attorney who represents the family of developer Kingdon Gould Jr., gave qualified praise to the mixed-use idea. But his presence warned that property owners are not going to surrender their right to determine how their land should be developed.

That's always the case. With this process, at least, citizens are involved at the beginning of the process. They don't have to just accept what's handed to them. There may still be NIMBYs, but there should be few surprises.

Norris West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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