Saving open spaces

July 05, 2006|By CYNTHIA JABS

In densely settled parts of Baltimore County, battles over rare pockets of open space are revealing a growing inability of government to balance short-term pressures from developers with the long-term interests of communities.

Residents and businesses have legitimate interests in developments that affect their quality of life and livelihoods. And Baltimore County has an elaborate and expensive process intended to address these issues.

Unfortunately, communities are finding that this process offers nothing more than lip service to the concept of community planning. Administrators and elected officials routinely surrender the public interest to developers' efforts to squeeze every last dime out of available bits of land.

This results in one of two things: Community-minded citizens shrug it off and give up their efforts to be involved, or they turn to the legal system to win recognition for public interests ignored by county officials. Neither serves the public.

A case in point is the current conflict between the Country Club of Maryland and its neighbors in the Idlewylde area near Towson.

The country club owns the largest tract of open land in the Towson area, including 13 of the few remaining wooded acres on Herring Run. Neighbors have tried for decades to ensure that the area remains open space. The county's master plan designates the land for park and recreational use. And a long-term agreement not to develop the area was in place when the current owners bought it.

But when that agreement expired, club owners began planning a cluster of 46 large, upscale houses on a wooded portion of the property adjacent to Herring Run. Neighbors reacted predictably. Hundreds showed up at meetings to voice concerns about overcrowded schools, narrow streets and the loss of open space.

Efforts to raise money to purchase the property were ignored by the county and the state despite the land's designation as parkland and - by the state's standards - a severe shortage of open space in the area. Members of surrounding communities shuddered at the impact of the proposed development and realized there was nothing to prevent the club from eventually developing its remaining 160 acres.

County agencies reviewing the country club's development plan repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to work with the developer at the community's expense. For example, park officials recommended waiving all requirements to preserve some land as undeveloped or "passive" open space in exchange for a nominal fee. Traffic officials signed off on the plan even though driveways to each of the 46 two-car garages would be wider than the only existing road to the development.

Last year, County Executive James T. Smith Jr. warned that developing the area would be very difficult because of steep slopes with limited access and heavy forestation. He promised that "Baltimore County will continue to seek a solution that is environmentally sound."

But county officials have stalled community planning efforts while moving the development plan full speed ahead, despite environmental and other community concerns.

With hearings on the plan set to begin Friday, frustrated neighbors hired an attorney to prepare for the legal battle they expect may be necessary to address their concerns.

This scenario is not unique. Development battles are playing out the same way around the Baltimore area - Cromwell Valley, North Charles, Chapel Hill, the list goes on. In every case, frustration with the county planning process is eroding confidence in Baltimore County's elected and appointed officials.

For many years, the county enjoyed a widespread and well-earned reputation for intelligent land-use planning. This, in turn, contributed to its reputation as an appealing place to live, work and do business. None of this will last long if county officials don't give communities a genuine say in their future.

Mr. Smith recently signed off on a plan promising to rewrite county development rules over the next three years. That's a good start. But it will take more than promises to impress voters this election year. In recent elections elsewhere in the state, voters have unseated officials who were considered unduly influenced by developers.

The time is past when public officials can get away with letting developers write their own tickets at communities' expense.

Cynthia Jabs is on the board of the Idlewylde Community Association. She may be reached via e-mail through www.idlewylde.org.

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