Thinking things through

Residents meet monthly to talk out rural Baltimore County's future

December 10, 2006|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,[sun reporter]

With rain gently tapping on the wood deck outside, the group in Irving Spitzberg's living room gathers in a circle of upholstered chairs and recliners.

Spitzberg chats with a guest by the fireplace. Another man shakes hands with a neighbor. A woman sips a cup of cider.

It appears as if a book club is ready to dissect Richard Ford's latest novel or the merits of Billy Collins' poetry. But Spitzberg starts off by reciting population projections for rural northern Baltimore County.

The group, called the North County Institute, has gathered to talk about the deeper meaning of "rural conservation" and open space.

This particular night, the agenda items include: "summary of salient demographics for all council members before CZMP" -- a reference to the county's comprehensive zoning map process.

If the subjects are more philosophical than many neighborhood associations, it is by design.

"People on the front lines dealing with land-use battles don't have time to think about it," says Spitzberg, who founded the North County Institute last year. "The idea here is to give people an organizational setting to compare notes and to think in the long term."

The meetings are open to the public, and participants in the institute tend to have preservation backgrounds. Several are presidents of community organizations.

Different from neighborhood associations that meet in school auditoriums and senior centers across suburban Baltimore, the group operates like a literary salon.

The institute convenes once a month, usually on a weekday evening or a Sunday afternoon, and usually hears from experts in the fields of conservation and community planning.

Speakers have included school officials who try to predict student enrollment in a given year, county government planners and the local county councilman, T. Bryan McIntire.

The group keeps minutes and follows agendas, but it doesn't take up the usual fodder for community organizations -- items such as when the next park clean-up day is planned or what new business might be coming to the area.

"Baltimore County probably has among the best community associations and conservancy groups in the country," Spitzberg says. "The community associations will be dealing with this development action or that development action. We want to help those groups have the right equipment ... There is an educational component. There is a research component."

McIntire calls the group a local "think tank."

"They're intelligent people with foresight," says McIntire. "It's a class act."

McIntire spoke to the group last month during its final meeting of the fall session. At one point, a contentious topic came up -- where to put recreation fields for youth sports leagues.

McIntire and Frank Purdum, president of the Freeland Community Association, have been at odds over a plan by Eric van den Beemt, a local youth coach, to build a sports complex in Freeland. While the debate has been heated in the community, no voices are raised during the North County Institute meeting.

"You're dealing with a group with experience dealing with county officials and these kinds of issues," says Purdum. "They're past the ranting and raving stage."

Spitzberg, a 64-year-old semiretired immigration attorney and former professor, became a preservation activist in Northern Virginia, where he lived for nearly a decade. There, he fought against development and utility proposals and founded a preservation group called "Advocates for the Rural Crescent."

Spitzberg and his wife, Virginia V. Thorndike, moved to Monkton about four years ago and immediately became involved with local preservation groups.

Having lived in Northern Virginia, "They've seen the damage that sprawl has done," says Lee Bishop, former president of the Sparks-Glencoe Coordinating Council.

The Sparks-Glencoe council members had been interested in forming a group like the nonprofit institute. When they got to know Spitzberg, Bishop said, they knew he was the right person to lead the institute.

Because those who attend the institute are well-educated and are thoughtful in their approach to issues, Bishop says, "I think they command the respect of county officials."

In January, the institute plans to focus on the comprehensive rezoning process that begins in 2008. During this period, the county's zoning designations, which determine how many houses and what types of businesses are permitted in certain areas, can be changed.

The institute is forming a group of experts to look at factors, such as the area's water supply, that are not taken into account during the zoning process, Spitzberg says.

Spitzberg would like to see the organization help other groups determine what zoning changes are a priority and to make the institute's Web site a clearing house for information about comprehensive zoning procedure.

Some activists say they don't have the luxury of pondering issues. They say they need to spend their time on specific threats.

Lucy Wright, a founder of the Prettyboy Watershed Alliance, says the organization is beneficial.

"It's very forward-thinking," says Wright. "Irving has the ability to bring people and data out of the woodwork to create a true picture."

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