Land-use battles build communities

Unity: Anger over projects prods people to improve their neighborhoods, and meet their neighbors.

May 05, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Ruth and Ernie Baisden will never say they're grateful for the out-of-the-blue rezoning that put a commercial business next to their home in Parkville six years ago.

But the anger that followed that surprise is the reason Parkville is a nicer place to live today.

The frustrated couple and others successfully lobbied to change a county law so neighbors won't be caught unaware by zoning requests, started community associations, protected the Baltimore County suburb's 19th-century park and discovered that folks are eager to do civic-minded things -- such as picking up litter on the sidewalks and planting in public spaces -- if you only ask.

Residents complain that development ruins neighborhoods. But across Maryland, development fights are galvanizing people to jump into local issues and make their communities stronger.

"People need some impetus to get involved," said Amanda Spake, a writer from Churchton whose land-use efforts with others in Anne Arundel County have expanded into community-building.

"Something personally has to touch you. ... It's given all of us a sense of belonging, a sense of family and a sense of purpose you might not always have going to your job, going home."

People are experiencing the same side effects around the state:

In Howard County's Highland neighborhood, plans to redevelop a section of the narrow, old-timey crossroads where Routes 108 and 216 meet persuaded residents to form the community preservation association their town had never had.

Now, after several meetings, they're thinking about turning their remnant of times past into a historic district -- and neighbors who didn't even know each other before are making plans for a community barbecue.

St. Mary's County residents with individual concerns about development organized an Internet message group two years ago to connect neighborhoods and give everyone a way to share information.

Recent topics for discussion: finding apartments for Southern Maryland people whose homes were destroyed by last weekend's tornado and building shelters for the impoverished.

That pleases Lusby resident Tammy Vitale, who branched out from development issues to help link middle-income residents in the county with people on the edge of homelessness.

The South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development sprang to life about seven years ago to stop luxury homes from being built on 477 acres of marshy bayfront land.

But now -- with about 450 members -- the group known as SACReD helps plan growth, sends kids to nature camps and has just started a low-power radio station to link bay communities.

After Fallston resident Valerie Twanmoh joined the land-use activist group Friends of Harford about seven years ago, she had an excuse to knock on neighbors' doors and introduce herself along with the issues she cared about.

Now she's running for County Council. In darker moments, when development fights seem unwinnable, "at least we can say, there is something positive that comes out of it, no matter what."

And in the Hollifield Station neighborhood in Ellicott City, so new that hardly anybody knew anybody, plans for a 200-child day-care center made the introductions quickly.

After the community won its fight to block the center last year, residents streamed onto the site for a celebration, block party-style.

"Before we got involved in the community, we used to watch TV every night. I can't even tell you what's on TV now," said Ernie Baisden, 50, a planner for the Mass Transit Administration who moved to Parkville 18 years ago. "It's amazing how it's really changed things, and it's much healthier."

Annapolis lawyer Thomas Deming has noticed a lingering resentment after development fights, win or lose, because neighbors felt the government wasn't looking out for them.

But people are surprised and gratified to watch something good grow out of frustration.

"These community battles really do bring people together," said Towson land-use lawyer J. Carroll Holzer, who represents groups across the state. "It's really been like a civics primer for a lot of these folks."

He has watched people come out of their suburban isolation, meet neighbors down the street and grasp for the first time the untapped resources their communities hold. "People say, `My gosh, I didn't know Joe next door was working in the EPA,'" Holzer said.

For the Baisdens, connections made during a rezoning fight six years ago have resulted in lasting neighborhood improvement efforts.

Spurred by the development experience, they formed the Parkville Park Community Association and restarted the defunct Greater Parkville Community Council.

Now more than 500 people and 11 neighborhood associations belong to the latter group, which is working to revitalize business-heavy Harford Road.

Volunteers hand-deliver 8,000 newsletters monthly that tell people what's going on and urge them to collect litter while they're out for a stroll (it's working, the Baisdens report).

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