Farms vs. houses in the rural north

Rezoning: The County Council will be pondering the redesignation of more than 9,000 acres in northern Baltimore County to slow residential growth.

January 18, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Winnie Stickles had time only to run to the country store next door and grab a sandwich and some chips between appointments at her Parkton hair salon, a place she says just keeps getting busier.

In her lifetime, things have changed in this community, not so much a town as a crossroads with a few shops and a church a half-dozen miles from the Pennsylvania line in northern Baltimore County. Once-uninterrupted vistas of farmland are now studded with subdivisions of half-million-dollar homes.

"Business is good," said Stickles, 38. "But I hate to see the farmland go."

Those sentiments will likely be repeated in the coming months as the County Council considers rezoning more than 9,000 rural acres in northern Baltimore County to slow the pace of residential growth.

Councilmen T. Bryan McIntire, a north county Republican, and Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, have proposed stricter zoning for properties stretching from the Green Spring Valley to the Pennsylvania line. Conservation and community groups have proposed downzoning tens of thousands of acres more.

Though there is widespread wariness about development in the rural north, the proposals have stirred mixed emotions.

That was evident last week at Wally's Country Store on Middletown Road, a low-slung brown building with a porch and gasoline pumps out front. Inside, where shoppers can buy anything from Sugar Daddys to Nyquil, the grill in back does a hefty lunchtime business.

As longtime area residents stopped in for coffee, sandwiches and gas, nearly all said they're worried about how their communities have changed as suburbia has crept north.

At the same time, there was a recognition that new people bring new opportunities. Local merchants and contractors are doing more business, and many people said they have friends or relatives who have sold land to developers.

But more is at stake in the zoning debate than a changing way of life for residents. Conservation groups say that rapid homebuilding in the rural regions threatens water quality and the viability of agriculture. Developers and real estate interests counter that by cutting off the avenues for residential growth, politicians are dooming the next generation to uncontrollable housing prices.

To Bruce Henschen, a Parkton resident who has spent the past 40 years on both sides of the Baltimore County-Pennsylvania line, the housing prices in the north county are already pretty amazing.

Henschen runs a business installing telephone systems, computer networks and theater systems in homes, and recently he has been spending a lot of time in the mini-mansions that people are paying top dollar to build on farmland.

He said growth is good for his business, but he worries about crowded schools and roads. And he has watched as Shrewsbury, Pa., the town where he was raised, has grown out of control.

"It's a lot of growth, more than you can imagine," he said, while making a stop at Wally's. "There's got to be some control."

The reason that so many people are moving to southern Pennsylvania and to Carroll and Harford counties is that Baltimore County politicians have effectively forced them to, said Tom Ballentine, government affairs director of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

A study that the homebuilders commissioned three years ago found that under existing zoning, Baltimore County would run out of buildable lots within a few years. Already, people aren't finding the kinds of houses they want or can afford in the county, so they're moving farther away, stretching commutes and clogging roads, he said.

"It's politically expedient to cut zoning, but families are going to be forced out of Baltimore County," Ballentine said.

Stopping by Wally's on his way to a horse show, Vernon Tracey, who raises cattle and horses near the state line, said that what he has seen being forced out is agriculture.

The more farms get turned into subdivisions, the harder it is to find feed, supplies and spare equipment parts, he said.

"I can't go locally to get it," he said. "It's tough."

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a pro-Smart Growth group, said stricter zoning is crucial for the north county to slow the conversion of farmland to housing, a process she said has negative effects on the environment and economy.

Rather than paving over the rural north, Schmidt-Perkins said, the county should concentrate on creating a mix of housing types in growth centers such as Owings Mills, White Marsh and Honeygo, where there are roads, schools and shops.

"We really need to be protecting our agricultural heritage and industry," she said.

Back at Wally's, Frank Armacost, a lifelong resident of the northwest county and part of a prominent farming family, said he doesn't like to see the rural landscape changed. But, he said, he doesn't like the idea of forcing people not to build more houses.

"I think that people ought to be able to do with their land what they like to," he said. "These groups, if they don't like it, ought to get together and pay the owners what they want for it."

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