In minutes you can drive northeast on Bel Air Road to Honeygo Boulevard, covering the short distance between landmarks of Perry Hall's suburban past and present - from the Perry Hall Square Shopping Center to the new library, from work that needs doing to a project completed this year to good reviews.
Much has been done lately and much is yet to be done in and around Perry Hall, a community of about 40,000 people that can claim one of Baltimore County's august historic addresses - Perry Hall Mansion - even if the area has not been recognized with a formal county plan devoted strictly to its own aspirations. At least not yet.
That task begins this week, as residents are being asked to gather at the new public library at 7 p.m. today for the first meeting conducted in pursuit of a plan for the next 10 to 20 years. When the work is completed in a year or more, Perry Hall will for the first time have a community plan in its own name as a guide for developing and improving housing, shopping, recreation areas, senior centers, roads.
"We've been pushing it for six or seven years," said David Marks, a longtime resident and president of the Perry Hall Improvement Association.
Residents will do much of the work in consultation with a member of the county planning staff. In this case, that will be Donnell T. Zeigler, the 5th District community planner, who emphasized the role played by residents, local churches and business organizations.
Zeigler said he expects that residents will conduct large group discussions to identify key concerns, then break into committees of five or 10 people, each group focusing on one issue.
County Councilman Vincent Gardina, who represents the 5th District, got the process going officially last December by introducing a resolution asking the Planning Board to develop a plan for Perry Hall. As he describes it, the plan - which eventually becomes part of the county master plan -will likely emerge as part road map, part wish list, part community condition report.
The condition of the Perry Hall Square Shopping Center, for instance, is much discussed, not least for its prominent location at the area's main crossroads of Bel Air, Joppa and Ebenezer roads. Opened in 1961 and now showing many empty storefronts and others needing updating, the center seems a classic case of a suburban project aging poorly, overshadowed by the emergence of newer shopping areas nearby.
Zeigler said the plan can at least recommend improvements even if the current owner cannot be forced to comply, and such suggestions could serve as a guide if a new owner takes over. Gardina said the plan could establish a strategy for commercial development on Belair Road, identify where streets need fixing or sprucing up and where new cycling and hiking trails might be developed. It could recommend ways to deal with stormwater control and other maintenance problems.
The plan could reflect the concern about crowding at Perry Hall High School, although Gardina said he does not believe a new high school - with a cost pegged at around $70 million or $80 million - is in the cards.
Burgeoning school enrollment is only one measure of how much Perry Hall has grown and is still growing, having transformed in the past 30 years from farming community to busy suburb. According to the U.S. Census, the population jumped from 16,500 in 1980 to 40,000 in 2000.
The numbers tell only part of a story of how the defining elements of the place vanished in the bulldozer's wake in the past 30 years. Historic homes, taverns, established family businesses, open fields and farms were casualties, as was a measure of Perry Hall's sense of identity.
In his book on Perry Hall history, David Marks describes 10 years of change through the late 1980s: "Suddenly, in only a decade, Perry Hall felt more like a crowd than a community."
He sees the plan as part of an effort to bring order after a whirlwind. The location for the first session seems fitting, as the library on Honeygo Boulevard is "as close to a community center as there is."