Houses go up

scenic road signs come down

Byways dwindle as growth comes in

December 16, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

They were, officially, roads that offered some of the most beautiful views in Maryland, meandering past farms, woodlands and historic buildings. Signs painted with black-eyed Susans marked them as "Scenic Byways" - part of a state program to boost tourism and preserve the character of rural roads.

But earlier this year, those signs came down.

State highways officials have removed 250 miles of road from the list of scenic byways. The views, it seems, are not so charming anymore now that trees have been felled and shopping centers and McMansions have risen in their place.

"All of us who live in Maryland have had that favorite view, that farm or field that has disappeared to make way for new homes or a 7-Eleven," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a preservation group. "To me, this is a symptom of failing to plan for future growth efficiently and effectively."

FOR THE RECORD - A map accompanying a front-page article Sunday on area roads that have lost their designations as Maryland scenic byways contained an incorrect route number for Harford Road. It is state Route 147.

The scenic roads initiative started in 1988, and in the two decades since - despite high-profile state programs such as Smart Growth - development has pushed farther and farther into the countryside. The roads stripped of scenic status include routes that pass through parts of each of the five counties surrounding Baltimore.

One of the former byways, dubbed "Gunpowder Crossing," stretched from Baltimore County through Bel Air to northern Harford County. Drivers briefly follow the tree-lined banks of the Gunpowder River, then pass the community of Fork - where one building houses the post office, a veterinarian and the "Because You're Worth It" hair salon - before turning onto U.S. Business 1, where the sides of the road are crammed with car lots and fast-food restaurants.

Morita Bruce, who has lived near Fallston for 30 years, is not surprised that the route through Bel Air is no longer considered scenic.

"If you were able to stand in the middle of [U.S. Business 1] without getting run over, you would see nothing but ugly commercial businesses," she said.

In the past, her family used livestock as landmarks when giving directions to their home - make lefts at two horse farms and if you see cows you've gone too far. Now only one horse farm remains, Bruce said.

Drivers on the former scenic byway also pass the Paradise View produce stand and farm on Ady Road in Hickory, land that James W. "Wilbur" Barrow's family has owned since the 1820s.

Although the heavy development in the Bel Air area was the primary reason that the byway lost its scenic status, Barrow has watched new homes and businesses spring up in his area, too. A sign in an empty field down the road announces it as the future home of the "Golden Spring" development.

Wearing a fur-lined hat with flaps pulled over his ears, Barrow, 64, split logs one afternoon last week. Smoke puffed from the chimney of his produce stand, where he sells pecans and Christmas trees at this time of year.

Barrow said that he has seen many old friends sell their farms to developers in the past few decades because of low prices for crops or steep inheritance taxes. In some cases, he said, children weren't interested in farming. Some sold their property bit-by-bit in small lots, and others sold it all at once to pay for care in a nursing home, he said.

In the end, Barrow said, they all sold because they decided "there was more money in planting houses."

Barrow has noticed a major increase in traffic: "This road starts singing at 4:30 in the morning. That tells you something about how far people travel for work."

One afternoon, he counted 6,000 cars passing by in a three-hour period, he said. And he can no longer drive his tractor down the road without a chain of angry motorists forming behind him.

"People move here from the city because they want to live in the country," said John Whitehurst Sr., Barrow's son-in-law and a fellow farmer. "But then they bring the city with them."

Maryland's Scenic Byways program is designed to encourage motorists to travel roads with historical, cultural or aesthetic appeal. The system of roads, which has been expanded several times, was reconfigured earlier this year to encompass nearly 2,500 miles, grouped in 19 byways, according to Terence Maxwell, who directs the byway program for the State Highway Administration.

Although officials added hundreds of miles to the scenic list this year, they also removed roads that "lost their scenic qualities" because of development, such as a Route 259 in western Anne Arundel County and Main Street in Frederick, Maxwell said. Other roads, like Westminster's Main Street, are in danger of losing their scenic status in the next review of the program.

Maxwell, who has driven all of the scenic byways, has met with planning officials and developers throughout the state to ask them to respect the visual and historic features of the roads by, for instance, planting native species, avoiding cul de sac developments and maintaining the narrow, twisting feel of country road.

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