Farmland's future a community plan

Perryman: Planners, consultants and skeptical residents are hammering out a new vision for a Harford peninsula.

September 04, 2001|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Harford County's prosperity is coming to bear in Perryman.

Best known for Gabler's crab house and Mitchell's white-kernel corn, the Perryman peninsula stretches 5 miles long, with Aberdeen Proving Ground at one edge and the Bush River at another. Fields of corn and soybeans roll out in verdant vistas, first laid out by colonial settlers.

But Perryman is slowly shedding its quiet coastal farmland as it takes on a role the county chose for it nearly a half-century ago, and the changes are causing dismay among residents who are working on a plan for the peninsula's future.

A power plant, a water treatment plant, rail lines and large distribution warehouses share space with the verdant fields. And that is just the start of what is possible under the light industrial zoning designation that covers most of Perryman's land.

In the 1950s, planners first considered Perryman's flatness and proximity to major roads and rails and anointed it for growth. Over the decades, millions of public and private dollars for sewer, power and telecommunications improvements have prepared the land to enlarge Harford County's economic base. Today, with 218,590 residents and growing fast, the county is hungry for the tax base that could thrive there.

"It is land that has been predetermined to be an economic engine for the county," said County Executive James M. Harkins. "We have lots of houses, but not nearly enough businesses and jobs."

If the remaining 1,000 acres of Perryman farmland is fully developed for warehouse-based distribution, the peninsula could become home to 28 million square feet of warehouse space, said Joseph Kocy, county planning and zoning director. That would mean 35 warehouses like the 800,000-square-foot Rite Aid building, and thousands of tractor-trailers making trips to and from warehouses each week.

Herein lies the Perryman problem for the county, state and community: The state can't afford the roads - which would cost at least $150 million - to accommodate that scale of growth. And residents and county planners agree no one wants to see the land lost under the crush of tractor-trailers and super-size warehouses.

"Perryman's not going to stay farm fields forever," said Kocy, who joined the department in 1998. "But we still have a chance to make a difference there."

The county planning department and state transportation officials worked together last fall on a Perryman transportation study. What they found, said Don Halligan of the state Department of Transportation, "were some solutions that were too expensive for us to commit to." He said he believes the $150 million estimate was "pretty low."

The reaction to the study, said Pete Gutwald, county comprehensive planning manager, was, "Oh my gosh, we can't do all that. What can we do?"

But here the process took a new turn. Instead of sitting in their offices drafting new plans to show the community, state officials brought in a consultant, Anton Nelessen, a nationally noted urban planner, to enlist the community in the planning.

He is leading residents in a four-part "visioning" process to devise a new plan for Perryman, one the county and state hope will include such features as mixed-use villages and high-tech offices.

In the first two sessions, participants rated types of development and discussed their preferences. In the third, residents sat down with markers and placed their preferences - things like neighborhoods, offices and railroad stations - on a map. Nelessen will use their maps to create a master plan, which will be taken to the county and state for review. The result will be presented to the community.

"We have the potential, with Aberdeen Proving Ground and the center of technology it has become, to be another Patuxent Naval Air Station," said Harkins, referring to private business growth on land near the air station.

"The key here is being inclusive," he said, referring to community input.

Residents, though, have been slow to trust the process. Many did not realize the peninsula was zoned light industrial until they began attending the visioning sessions. And as much as they fear the onslaught of tractor-trailers, they fear an influx of residents that will overwhelm community services.

"These people really care about where they live," said Cecelia M. Stepp, Perryman's county councilwoman. In the first visioning session, she said, "the folks were so angry, venting instead of coming together to tell this administration what they want and don't want."

At the third session, which was held Aug. 23 in Aberdeen, when participants sat down with tracing paper and markers to map Perryman's future, anger and mistrust bubbled. One woman, listening to Kocy's assurance that this session was different from at least a half-dozen other Perryman planning meetings, just shook her head.

"They've been saying that for years," she said, turning and walking out the door.

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