Civic groups join forces

Activists aim to be heard in 10-year county land-use review

October 03, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

Concerned that Anne Arundel County's upcoming once-a-decade review of its overall land-use plan may give little weight to community input, a wide range of civic groups have formed a coalition to share resources and advocate broad principles regarding growth.

The county has revamped the system it used 10 years ago to map out the General Development Plan, which allowed residents and businesses to play a key role in shaping their neighborhoods but took far longer than expected.

This time around, the area planning committees have been abolished, and residents are being asked to send their comments through e-mail.

As county officials ponder zoning changes under the pressure of expansion at Fort Meade, some community leaders worry that their influence could be diminished.

"We had this experience [10 years ago] where maybe we had too much input, but it was a lengthy process where the community was completely involved and felt strongly that they had ownership of these plans," said Ann Fligsten, an attorney and president of Arnold Preservation Council Inc. "We've got all these activists all over the county that were involved in prior planning, and now they're not involved."

Since July, leaders of more than 30 community and environmental groups from across the county have been holding monthly meetings, swapping ideas and plotting a direction. The coalition, called the Growth Action Network, issued a news release this week in hopes of reaching out to more groups interested in connecting with others that share the same goals.

"We don't have everybody yet, but we're growing," said Fligsten, a founder of the network.

As the county braces for a projected 22,000 jobs moving to or near Fort Meade over the next seven or eight years, County Executive John R. Leopold said he is trying to "strike the right balance" between maximizing public involvement and expediting the planning process.

"If any citizen feels that he or she has a point of view that they don't think has been adequately represented," he said, "I will make every effort to make sure that viewpoint is heard and thoughtfully considered."

The Growth Action Network was created to organize a Nov. 3 event featuring an author and planner from Oregon. But leaders of various groups decided it would be beneficial to hold regular meetings.

For now, Fligsten said, the Growth Action Network will not take formal policy stands or raise money. That will be left up to the individual groups, which have varied interests and goals.

The groups are from every part of the county, and their interests include zoning and air and water quality.

There are no general growth watchdog organizations in Howard or Baltimore counties. In Harford County, Friends of Harford has members from community organizations. Government officials there are taking on the first significant rewrite of the zoning code in 25 years as growth at Aberdeen Proving Ground nears.

"There's real value in sharing knowledge. You may have one group not realizing the other has had a similar experience, and has a pile of information they can share. It's to link our resources," said Judy Blomquist, the group's president.

Al Johnston, vice president of the Greater Severna Park Council, said the meetings have helped him spread information about the zoning code to residents from other parts of Anne Arundel County, who then contacted their council representatives. He called it "democracy in action."

Not all groups are necessarily interested in banding together. Torrey Jacobsen, president of the Greater Crofton Council, said communities have specific interests.

"I'm always open for suggestions, and I'm not closing the door on it, but I don't see a big benefit of these groups getting together like that," he said. "Each section has its own needs and wants."

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