Sunday, December 30, 2012

Why tensions are at a fever pitch over proposals targeting open spaces (e.g. parks) within Baltimore County for development and what YOU can do about it.

A park targeted for a new fire house. Another park targeted for a new school.  If public reaction to these recent headlines and their related stories about the possible development of existing park land is, in any way, a barometer of tension over the use of scarce open space within Baltimore County’s growth line (aka, “the URDL”),  then “Houston” we do, indeed, have “a problem” – tensions are running at a fever pitch.  

The “problem” has its origins in the large-scale urban decentralization of housing and jobs that followed on the heels of World War II.  Across the U.S. and in Baltimore, economic prosperity, and the desire of suburban counties to enhance their tax bases, resulted in population flight from cities to new homes and communities being built in suburban areas that we now call “inner suburbs,” like those shown in the map above.  These communities, which were connected to the city by major radial roadways but relatively disconnected from one another, were then joined by the development of beltways, which also served to provide a freeway bypass of the city and to hasten our car dependency. The Baltimore Beltway was the first such highway completed as part of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways between 1956 and 1977.

Conventional zoning applied to these new communities segregates land uses, such that there are separate areas for homes, businesses, and schools.  More often than not, the distance between these uses means that communities are unwalkable and car-dependent, an issue we have highlighted in earlier posts.  In addition, there were no rules until recently requiring developers to set aside land for public open space, leaving many of the communities within the County’s inner suburbs with no parks within a five- to ten-minute walk from home. 

As land for development became increasingly scarce within the inner suburbs, attention turned to the farmland that lay beyond them. In many areas across the country, counties were slow to act on sprawling development, with the result that large numbers of farms and natural areas were lost forever. To a large extent, Baltimore County avoided this result by creating the Urban Rural Demarcation Line (URDL), shown in the map, above, in 1967.  Beyond this growth line, no public water or sewer infrastructure can be provided, with the result that large-scale developments cannot be constructed there. Roughly one quarter of this land has been placed in conservation easements (with aid from other land trusts and often with aid of public funding) over time, protecting it from development forever.

The existence of the URDL clearly halted the spread of population beyond its boundaries, as 90 percent of the County’s 807,000 residents now live within it.  As noted above, however, the communities within the URDL boundary can hardly be called idyllic, void as they are of open space, poorly planned, and largely unwalkable. Should there be any surprise, then, that residents of these communities bristle when park land is threatened by development?

The answer, and a widely accepted one, is “No.” There is widespread agreement among experts familiar with these issues that quality public open space, among many other things, is central to the livability of inner suburbs.  In his recent book entitled, Transforming Race & Class in Suburbia, Thomas J. Vicino characterizes the County’s inner suburbs as being “at a crossroads” in terms of needed investments, like parks, that will make them more attractive places to live and work.  Architect Ellen Dunham-Jones, in her recent book, Retrofitting Suburbia, argues for transformative change to the suburban built environment, especially projects that “introduce compelling public space.”

To its credit, the County has taken a large step in the direction urged by Vicino and Dunham-Jones by targeting over 50 “Community Enhancement Areas” for redevelopment in the latest Master Plan approved by the County Council in 2010.  Shown in the map below, most of these areas are along commercial corridors and many are characterized by failing or defunct uses and acres of underperforming impervious surface. The idea is to retrofit some of this land for public parks and squares and to redevelop the 

balance into well planned, mixed-use communities, something we’ve dubbed “retrofitting subURDLia.” In this way, projected growth in the County is accommodated, some of the planning blunders of the last century are ameliorated, and, hopefully, existing open spaces (e.g. parks) are held harmless from development.

In the two years that this plan has been on the books, how many of these projects have been launched?  The answer is “not many” and the reasons are prolific.  But our case is not one of first impression.  Other jurisdictions within Maryland and outside of it are successfully redeveloping their inner suburbs and we can learn from them.  To that end, NeighborSpace is sponsoring “Retrofitting SubURDLia,” a benefit breakfast, on Thursday, January 10, 2013 form 7:30 to 9:30 AM at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Timonium, where State Planning Secretary, Rich Hall, and ULI Fellow, Ed McMahon, will offer perspectives on how we can channel development to our CEAs and improve the livability of the communities within the URDL that so many of us call home.  More information about the event and reservations can be found on our home page at Questions may be directed to Barbara Hopkins, Executive Director, at 443-610-8601 or at

Sunday, August 19, 2012

How do we improve communities by protecting land?

This is a question that NeighborSpace has been attempting to answer as we embark on developing a first-of-its-kind strategic conservation plan.  The development of the plan is driven by standards and practices that all land trusts affiliated with the national Land Trust Alliance(LTA) are required to follow as guiding principles.  It’s also fueled by some very practical considerations:  According to LTA, land trusts that focus on strategic priorities and create conservation visions typically raise more funds and protect more land more efficiently than those who jump at any opportunity without an overarching plan.

The plan is considered to be the first of its kind because there is really no model for land conservation planning in first-tier suburbs (like the area within the URDL in Baltimore County) in the same way that there are models for planning in more rural areas.  This is among the reasons that the National Park Service offered to work with NeighborSpace on the development of such a plan, so that a model could be developed and disseminated for use by conservation organizations like NeighborSpace in other parts of the country.

Step one in developing the plan is to define what we mean by a livable community.  (We’ll have more to say about the planning steps in future posts). Fortunately there are many prior efforts upon which to draw in developing this definition, which, in essence, provide that livability is a subset of sustainability – in particular, those attributes of sustainability that directly affect people living in a community.   Kaid Benfield, Sustainable Communities Program Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDS) says that a sustainable  community is a place "where use of resources and emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants are going down, not up; where the air and waterways are accessible and clean; where land is used efficiently and shared parks and public spaces are plentiful and easily visited; where people of different ages, income levels and cultural backgrounds share equally in environmental, social and cultural benefits; where many needs of daily life can be met within a 20-minute walk and all may be met within a 20-minute transit ride; where industry and economic opportunity emphasize healthy, environmentally sound practices."[1]

In other words, a sustainable community is one where social, environmental and economic demands (also known as “the three pillars of sustainability”) are balanced:  “neighborhoods sporting healthy amounts of green space and shared vegetable gardens; mass transit, biking and walking replacing the majority of automobile traffic; and mixed use communities where schools, residences and commercial spaces are near each other and are powered by solar panels, geothermal heat pumps or windmills.”[2]

As we decide what this means for land conservation within the URDL going forward, it is helpful to look backward in time at some of the land we protected earlier in our history and at the contributions those parcels have made to the sustainability of communities within the Urban Rural Demarcation Line (URDL).  In this post, we’ll travel to our Gwynn Oak Ave. site in Woodlawn.  If you drove by  there on the evening of Tuesday, August 7, you would have caught a glimpse of Don Knotts as the “Incredible Mr. Limpet,” the protagonist in a 1964 Warner Brothers film in which a mild-mannered Brooklyn bookeeper with a passion for fish magically turns into a dolphin.  The Graystone Community Association hosted this outdoor movie night in recognition of “National Night Out,” America’s night out against crime.  This nationwide campaign seeks to heighten crime and drug prevention awareness; generate support for, and participation in, local anticrime programs; strengthen neighborhood spirit and police-community partnerships; and send a message to criminals letting them know that neighborhoods are organized and fighting back.

Roughly 40 people of all ages turned out with folding chairs, blankets and tiki torches for the event, along with a contingent of officers from the Baltimore County Police Department and representatives from the Red Line, the 14. 1 mile mass transit corridor planned to extend from the Social Security complex in  Woodlawn to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Campus.  Graystone Community Association President, Jim Amos, expressed his appreciation for the 13 years he had spent in the community and urged those in attendance to get to know their neighbors.  Kerri Lastner,  past president of the association and event organizer, underscored the importance of getting together as a community “just to have fun.” Woodlawn Christian Fellowship Pastor Michele Perrera and her husband, Tom, were also on hand to share in the festivities and to provide a movie staple, fresh popcorn, to all in attendance.

In the movie, Mr. Limpet struggles for acceptance and has few passions in his life as a man, but finds great reward and happiness, with the help of his underwater friends, once transformed into a fish.   There are some parallels, here, for this very diverse community, in terms of its ability to come together in acceptance and celebration of individual differences and, thereby, to strengthen the neighborhood and to overcome the challenges targeted by “National Night Out.”

A painter’s tarp stretched between two apple trees on a quarter acre of otherwise vacant land is hardly fodder for a masterpiece – unless and until we can appreciate it in a broader context.  When it serves to bridge the all too familiar divides of race, age, socioeconomic status and religious belief and to knit diverse individuals together as a community, it becomes a magnum opus and a hallmark of sustainability.  Imagine what our inner suburbs could become if every community had a small parcel of land like the NeighborSpace site on Gwynn Oak Ave. and a community association like Graystone to manage and program it.

[1] Kaid Benfield, A Trip to Sustainaville. Switchboard, March 2011.
[2] Ibid.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Cutting Through the Jibberjabber of Land Trust Speak to Explain Important, New Tax Benefits for NeighborSpace Easement Donors

As a result of a new partnership with the Maryland Environmental Trust (MET), a quasi-governmental, statewide land trust, donors of conservation easements to NeighborSpace will now be eligible for both a State income tax credit and a State property tax credit.  These same individuals will remain eligible to receive a federal charitable income tax deduction and a local property tax exemption.  But what does all of this jibberjabber really mean? 

Alfred E. Neuman wrote that "today, it takes more brains and effort to make out the income-tax form than it does to make the income." The same could be said of making a land donation to a land trust like NeighborSpace. So let's see if we can boil this down to its essence and explain in plainer English just how our new partnership with MET will actually benefit donors of easements to NeighborSpace.

1) What Exactly is a Land Trust? A land trust is a nonprofit organization that works to conserve land typically by taking an ownership interest in the land (aka "a conservation easement") that will enable it to protect the land's conservation values (e.g. habitat, recreation, scenery, open space) forever.

2) What is a Conservation Easement? A conservation easement is an ownership interest in land that the underlying "fee" owner typically donates to a land trust so that the land's conservation values can be protected.  The easement restricts the owner from using the land in any way that would diminish the conservation values and, in exchange for this restriction, the owner gets some very generous tax benefits that are described in further detail, below.  As shown in the diagram below, however, the underlying owner still has the right to possession of the land, the right to dispose of it while he or she is alive or upon his or her death, and the right to use the land so long as such use does not diminish the conservation value(s).

 3) Of Credits, Deductions, Exemptions and Whatnot

When it comes to tax relief, given your druthers, you should always prefer an exemption to any other type of relief because it results in your paying nothing, as shown in the table below.  Similarly, you should always prefer a credit over a deduction because a credit reduces the amount of tax you owe, while a deduction merely reduces the amount of your income that is subject to taxation.

4) The Bottom Line Resulting from Our New Partnership with MET

Our new partnership with MET has evolved out of that organization's willingness to reconsider a long-standing rule that it would only co-hold an easement with another land trust if the tract under consideration was 25 or more acres in size, an unlikely result for NeighborSpace.  The co-holding is necessary because the State tax benefits only accrue to the handful of organizations like MET that are part of State agencies.  As shown in the table below explaining each of the tax benefits that are now available to donors of easements to NeighborSpace, the most significant new benefit is clearly the State income tax credit.

If, after reading the foregoing, you are still scratching your head, you are not alone. When Albert Einstein was asked in 1944 about filling out his tax return, he declared, "This is a question too difficult for a mathematician.  It should be asked of a philosopher." While I can't claim to be a very good philosopher, I am happy to answer any questions at 443-610-8601 or at

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Best Reason to Support Bill 7-12: Protected Open Space Would Actually Show Up on a Map That You and I Could Access

Ever visited the County’s “My Neighborhood” GIS mapping site?  There is a wealth of information there about zoning (including current CZMP issues), environmental, civic/ governmental and historical conditions on land throughout the County, but very little information about protected open space within the County’s growth boundary, also known as the Urban Rural Demarcation Line (URDL), shown in the map at right.  Councilmen Marks and Quirk have introduced Bill 7-12, which would change all that by creating an overlay zoning district that would be applied to parcels owned by NeighborSpace and by homeowners associations.  If there was ever a place where a map showing open space could be needed more than it is here in Baltimore County, I’m stumped to say where that might be.  Let me explain.

First, 90% of the County’s 805,000 plus residents live within the URDL on just 1/3 of the County’s total land area.  What’s more, most of the neighborhoods there were built before regulations existed to require developers to set aside open space; ergo, there’s very little of it, which is a major reason why there is a land trust like NeighborSpace working to protect it.

Second, open space, particularly where it's contiguous to, or part of, a park, has been shown to provide significant health benefits for nearby residents.  What’s more, a recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that green spaces have significant economic pay-offs:  "The existence of a park within 1,500 feet of a home increased its sale price by between $845 and $2,262.  Additionally, as parks increased in size, their impact on property values increased significantly."  If you were planning to buy a home within the URDL, wouldn’t you want to know which homes and neighborhoods had contiguous open space?

Third, and building on my second reason for wanting to see this bill pass, is the fact that, with knowledge of the location of homeowners association parcels, NeighborSpace could seek to acquire complementary land and to work to create small parks and gardens where the condition of the land and the will of the local community indicated that such improvement was warranted and sustainable. NeighborSpace has already begun to work with partners on the development of small parks on some of its parcels with the assistance of the Morgan State University Graduate Program in Landscape Architecture, which has volunteered to provide design services for at least one such park per year. 

Open space is a terrible thing to waste, especially in an area like ours where it is in such short supply.  If you care about this issue, let your council person know.  If you’d like to stay on top of what we’re doing at NeighborSpace, please use this brief form to let me know.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Is there a better descriptor of a sustainable community than its walkability?

On January 31, lawyer, environmentalist, and blogger Kaid Benfield wrote his 1000th blog post (all in 4 yrs time) for the Natural Resources Defense Council.  He started the article “A gallery of walkability” this way: “I’m not sure there is any one word that describes my concept of a sustainable community place more than walkability. At least when it comes to describing the physical aspects of a place. Is it safe, comfortable, and enjoyable to walk in?  Does it have an abundance of places to walk to and from?  Is it human-scaled?  If the answer is yes, chances are that it also has many of the characteristics that smart growth and urbanist planners strive to achieve:  density, mixed uses, connectivity, appropriate traffic management, street frontages, opportunity for physical activity, and so on.” Take a look at Kaid’s photographs, which seem to underscore how comfortable and enjoyable walking must be in the places he cites as exemplars.  Yes, most of them are cities, not suburbs, but can we learn from them? Absolutely!

The website assigns a “walkability score” to cities and towns in the U.S. to help individuals evaluate the livability of their communities. The scoring algorithm calculates a score by mapping out the walking distance to amenities in 9 different categories: grocery, restaurants, shopping, coffee, banks, parks, schools, books, entertainment. Categories are weighted according to their importance, and the distance to a location, counts, and weights determine a base score. After this initial normalization, an address may receive a penalty for having poor pedestrian friendliness metrics, such as having long blocks or low intersection density. The scores range from 0 to 100 with the following ranges of walkability:


For fun, I looked up the walkability scores for the County’s first-tier suburbs, so-called because (1) at least half of their housing stock was built before 1970; and/or (2) they share a boundary with Baltimore City. These are primarily the areas in which NeighborSpace works to conserve land. Thirty-eight percent of them fall into the “somewhat walkable” category, albeit many of them just barely, with the balance ranking as “car-dependent.”

Middle River

Another expert on this topic is Dan Burden, Executive Director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute.  The video that is the subject of this link, Planning for People, captures work he did in the town of Brattleboro, VT last fall evaluating how to re-orient movement about the town from a system dominated by cars to one where pedestrians have more of a fighting chance. This is important for a number of different reasons, but, perhaps the most important one is that studies show that where people walk more, they are healthier. The video goes on to show specific steps for improving bicycle infrastructure and sidewalk connectivity. It has particular relevance to Baltimore County, which has a remarkably high percentage of older residents relative to other political jurisdictions statewide, given that much of the work was facilitated with the older residents of Brattleboro in mind by the Vermont Chapter of AARP.

A recent article from the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri  is closest to my heart among the various sources cited heretofore. The author, an employee of a nonprofit focused on making the city more walkable, laments that “motorists never find themselves suddenly running out of street, only to have it start again 200 feet later” and yet “it is not uncommon for pedestrians to simply run out of sidewalk and be unable to reach their destination.” I live in Parkville and until I put the chart, above, together for this post, I took for granted how easy it is to walk to many things. But a 53 is not a “Walker’s Paradise” on the Walk Score continuum and I can attest to the Missouri columnist’s comments on sidewalks running out.  Here’s a photo of a stretch of Old Harford Rd. I walked recently on my way back to my home in Villa Cresta after dropping my car off at a local car care facility to have new tires installed:

The sidewalk succumbs to a “tilty” and highly unwalkable stretch of macadam that is pitched between the road and a chainlink fence, behind which there is often a gnarly dog. Indeed, the pedestrian path pretty much ended; Old Harford Rd. did not.

I’m absolutely committed to securing more parks and open space within the County’s inner suburbs, but that effort to improve sustainability will be for naught if folks can’t comfortably walk or bike to these areas.  If you’ve got a route that you regularly walk or bike, take a minute to note the challenges you face and respond with them to this post and/or to your elected official, so that we can take the steps necessary to make these paths, and the inner suburbs within our County, safer and more sustainable for everyone.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Achieving Smart Growth Includes Protecting Public Open Space that People Instinctively Love

Stake-holders in the future of smart growth  in Maryland are often at odds with each other. But a recently released compilation of interviews with planners, developers and advocates by the National Center for Smart Growth shows that they agree on one thing: the State's smart growth tools that attempt to channel growth into Priority Funding Areas (PFAs) are  too weak to overcome local opposition and local regulatory barriers. In essence, there is a huge disconnect between State policy and what happens on the ground at the local level. For this reason we are "barely moving the needle on most widely accepted measures of smart growth."

Cited as the greatest hindrances to development inside PFAs are storm water regulations, citizen opposition, and adequate public facility ordinances at the local level.  Citizen opposition was the top-ranked impediment to developing in PFAs cited by advocates and the second top-ranked impediment cited by developers.  What's behind this result?

Kaid Benfield provides an answer in a recent blog post, What Smart Growth Advocates Get Wrong About Density. "We should be advocating density that appeals to more people, that we and future generations can be proud of ... the kinds of places that people instinctively love." According to Benfield, "'smart growth' without green infrastructure, green buildings, parks and great public spaces ... isn't particularly worthy of the name in my opinion."

I wasn't interviewed for the smart growth study, but, had I been asked my opinion, I would have said that Baltimore County is ahead of the pack in trying to give citizens what they want inside its PFA, which, in essence, is the entire area of the County within the URDL. In helping to launch NeighborSpace in 2003, the County made sure that there was an organization in place to sustain, create and protect the the kinds of places Benfield references.  I invite you to take a look at a few of them, particularly Tollgate Wyndham Preserve and Greenbrier Memorial Garden. County Executive Kamenetz has advanced a bond bill in the State legislature that, if passed, would help us begin a park on land we own on Robin Hill Road, acquire new land for public open space elsewhere in the County, and complete our strategic conservation plan.  (I'll have more to say about the bill in coming weeks).

The study makes a number recommendations for realigning State and local policies, many of which turn on local governments weaving PFAs more thoughtfully into their comprehensive planning processes, drawing them more broadly to include non-residential and mixed use projects, and achieving greater flexibility in both defining PFAs and in reducing regulatory restrictions within them in return for reducing growth elsewhere.  To this I would add an admonition from County Councilman Tom Quirk, who said, in the 9/20/2011 edition of the Catonsville Times that "open space and density have to balance each other." To truly achieve smart growth, we must protect public open space and ensure that what we protect are the kinds of places that people will instinctively love.  

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Two different approaches to making even the smallest slivers of land count for people

Here at NeighorSpace, we think small is great, not because we suffer from low self esteem, but because the small parcels of land that we protect are important to people.  They're the places where kids play and where people garden and walk their dogs.  Without them, the County's older, inner suburbs, shown in the map at right, would be far less enjoyable places to live.

In our December newsletter, we highlighted the smallest of our small plots, Greenbrier Memorial Garden, weighing in at a whopping 0.03 acres.  If you read the article, or, better yet, visited the site, you have a sense of how nice the garden is.  It's a serene and inviting spot and a true credit to the work of the the Greenbrier Garden Club to memorialize community members who have passed on with a space that is a wonderful enhancement to the Greenbrier Neighborhood.

Even smaller parcels of land are making big impacts.  In Montgomery County, planners are focused on street edges - small slivers of land that tend not to make a very big impression on us, especially if we happen to be passing in a fast-moving car.  But these places, too, are important to people, as they often are part of the gateway to homes, schools and businesses and provide a buffer for those of us on foot.  Montgomery's year-long project has resulted in plans that will beautify this real estate, collect drainage and wastewater, accommodate utilities and provide space for pedestrians and off-road bicyclists.

In New York City, Greenstreets identfies small isolated paved areas, the leftovers of city grid-making (median strips, triangles, cul-de-sacs), and, with the help of the City Transportation Department, deep sixes the pavement and plants flowers, shrubs and trees. And, recently, the early focus on urban greening was expanded to include improvements related to pedestrian and vehicular safety, ecology and stormwater management.  Since its inception 15 years ago, 2,574 paved areas have been transformed into small, pint-size parks and there are plans to create another 40 a year through 2017.

So, we hold our heads high on account of our "small" focus. But let there be no doubt that conserving small sites is huge work. If you can help us with site monitoring (visiting our properties and helping us document their condition periodically) or site improvement (especially if you're an arborist, landscape architect or grading contractor) we would love to connect with you - email me.