A `last chance' to preserve Maryland's scenic places

April 20, 2006|By TIMOTHY B. WHEELER | TIMOTHY B. WHEELER,SUN REPORTER

ADAMSTOWN -- The restored stone springhouse on Peter Michael's farm in Frederick County looks much as it did in the days before the Civil War, when runaway slaves are believed to have found shelter there.

Michael grew up hearing stories of how his great-grandfather Ezra aided "freedom-seekers" as they fled north along the Underground Railroad, the clandestine network of routes and people helping slaves escape bondage in the early 1800s.

But modernity is encroaching on Cooling Springs Farm. A battleship-gray power substation hulks in the distance, with high-tension wires stretching across the rolling countryside. Michael says more power lines, new homes and even a golf course could be in the offing.

FOR THE RECORD - An article on Page 1A yesterday about scenic places in Maryland incorrectly described a Frederick County man's ancestor who is believed to have helped slaves to escape. Ezra Michael was Peter Michael's great-great-grandfather.
The Sun regrets the errors.

The forces of change creeping into this rural landscape are far from unique, but a preservation group plans today to highlight the Frederick County homestead and six other historic and scenic sites in Maryland to warn of what could be lost as the state's population continues to grow.

"This is happening all over Maryland and all over the country," said Elizabeth Buxton, director of Scenic Maryland, an affiliate of the national group Scenic America. "There's an increase in pressure of development on scenic areas."

At news conferences in Baltimore and Potomac, the group is to unveil its list of Last Chance Scenic Places. The seven sites include the city's Charles Street corridor through historic Mount Vernon, relatively undeveloped Chincoteague Bay on the Eastern Shore and Scenic Route 40 snaking through the hills of Western Maryland.

Raising awareness

Buxton said the group hopes to raise awareness about places that define Maryland and about the need to protect them from threats such as suburban sprawl, strip malls, and billboards and cell phone towers.

"We're not opposed to growth," she said. "[We] just feel like it's important to have these scenic areas set aside and protected. The growth can happen in other places, but when all these places are developed, you lose these scenic places for good."

The group's list of endangered places comes amid growing debate about development in almost every corner of the nation's fifth most densely populated state. Maryland is expected to add 1.5 million people and 500,000 jobs by 2030, census planners say.

Nearly all of the sites on the list are both historic and scenic, and are threatened by some type of development, though the one in Baltimore represents a "success story," the group says.

Scenic Maryland listed the Charles Street corridor because it saw a threat to the neighborhood's 19th-century architectural flavor from developers wanting new buildings up to 230 feet tall, Buxton said.

The dispute, which also pitted historic preservation advocates against Baltimore planners, was settled this month when the City Council adopted a new urban renewal plan for the neighborhood that will limit new buildings to an average of 86 feet -- the restriction that preservation advocates sought.

"It's not as endangered as it was a month ago," said Paul Warren, vice president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, a civic group that had opposed taller buildings. He said Scenic Maryland helped sway the debate by testifying about the significance of the neighborhood and supporting height limits.

Development continues to threaten the other sites on the list, Buxton said.

In eastern Allegany County, a developer wants to build 4,300 homes along Scenic Route 40, a project that some residents fear would clog the two-lane highway and ruin its visual appeal.

In Dorchester County, the group listed Buckman Village, the birthplace of Harriet Tubman, a slave who freed herself and helped lead others to freedom on another spur of the Underground Railroad. Though relatively unchanged for decades, the area faces an uncertain future, the group says, as development creeps south from Cambridge, including the proposed 3,200-home Blackwater Resort several miles away.

Another Eastern Shore site on the list is Chincoteague Bay, the southernmost of Maryland's coastal bays. State and local efforts to restore and preserve the bays are inadequate to keep development pressure from fouling Chincoteague, the group contends.

`A thousand cuts'

One of the most unusual sites on the group's endangered list is a 185-mile stretch of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the Potomac River, from Cumberland to Georgetown.

Though the canal is owned by the National Park Service, preservationists say budget cuts have weakened the agency's ability to stop unwanted activities or even to properly survey the park's boundaries. Landowners along the river have marred its scenic quality by cutting trees and building large, luxury homes, activists say.

"It's not any single case -- it's the classic death by a thousand cuts," said Matthew Logan, president of the Potomac Conservancy. Logan said he hopes to persuade adjacent landowners to practice more sensitive stewardship but would also like to see more protective local zoning regulations.

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