Monday, March 4, 2013

Plans, Precepts, Policies, and People in Baltimore County Land Conservation Since 1960

“If you do not know how to ask the right questions, you discover nothing.” William Edward Deming, American Business Philosopher and Consultant

Several seminal events have taken place recently that impact land conservation in Baltimore County. Not all affect NeighborSpace directly, but they are, nonetheless, noteworthy. As I reflected on them, they seemed so disparate, which intrigued the problem solver in me who is, at once, owing to various training, categorical, detail-oriented, and visual. What started as a simple blog post to relay interesting news, ended up as a 12 hour extravaganza exploring the plans, precepts, policies and people that have shaped land use and conservation in Baltimore County for over 50 years – a veritable rabbit hole to Wonderland – but, nonetheless, an experience that led to greater understanding and appreciation of those who have laid a foundation for the next generation of work that must be done.

Using a timeline as an organizing element, I have begun to chronicle the precepts (laws), policies and people (organizations) that have evolved to make the landscape that we all know as Baltimore County look as it does today. This is by no means a finished product and I welcome suggestions for changing what can only be called an initial draft. As a rough drawing, the timeline succeeds in giving us some information we might not have gleaned from prose alone. One cannot help but notice a shift in concern in the last 10 years, for example, from issues related to protecting rural lands to those concerned with the thoughtful redevelopment (and infill) of more urban areas. Both urban and rural conservation efforts are still simultaneously important, but if our timeline has a story to tell, it is that we who are concerned with infill and redevelopment in the 200 square miles of land that lies within the URDL should take a page from our forbearers on the rural side and approach our conservation tasks thoughtfully. And no organization has been more thoughtful in approaching land conservation in Baltimore County than the Valleys Planning Council (VPC), which dates to 1962 and is where I originally wanted to begin this post.

If you’ve witnessed the timeline, you know that VPC just turned the corner on 50 years of age in 2012, and, in honor of that auspicious milestone, its leaders commissioned a movie about the plan that was the genesis of the organization. (There was a public screening of the movie at MICA in February that I attended and we hope to arrange another showing for NeighborSpace members shortly). The plan that drives the movie, known as the Plan for the Valleys, dates to 1963 and was authored by landscape architect Ian McHarg, who taught at the University of Pennsylvania and was a principal at the firm of Wallace McHarg Associates in Philadelphia. It is one of several chapters in a larger title called Design with Nature, a text that has been required reading for students of planning and landscape architecture across the country since the late 1960s. And, because of the foresight and fortitude of the members of the Valleys Planning Council, the McHarg plan was implemented, the Greenspring and Worthington Valleys were protected, and the Urban Rural Demarcation Line (URDL) was enacted with the result that, today, 90 percent of the County’s 807,000 residents live below the URDL on 1/3 of the County’s land area and roughly 25 percent of the land beyond the URDL is protected with conservation easements.

There are those who might say that the foregoing results are hardly ideal given the many shortcomings we have outlined in earlier posts about walkability, underutilized impervious surface, and the lack of open space in communities within the URDL. True. But what few people know is that there are rich aquifers underlying much of the land within the valleys and that they feed the reservoirs (e.g. Pretty Boy and Loch Raven) that provide much of our drinking water.  If they were densely developed, the aquifers and our drinking water sources would suffer, a result  arguably more unpalatable then the other challenges we face.

Moving on, I want to note that, as is the case in every General Assembly Session, Program Open Space (POS), which dates to 1969, and its sister programs (Rural Legacy, MALPF)  are once again threatened with having some their funds diverted to other uses. If you don’t know, POS is what the State uses to pay for parks and what county governments use to augment local funding for acquiring and enhancing park facilities.  It’s also the reason that people complain that Maryland’s real estate closing costs are so high – POS is funded from a modest tax on our closing costs. But that resulted for many years (at least until 2002) in Maryland conserving as much land as it developed annually, a claim that few states could ever make and an especially important achievement for the 5th most densely populated state in the country.  Please see the details of this year’s attempts to make an end-run around one of the soundest land conservation ideas there has ever been, and what you can do to help by clicking here.  As we note in the timeline, counties are required to update their plans for spending POS funding every six years, and we are in one of those years.  Please click here to comment on Baltimore County’s plans by March 31.

Another element of our timeline that is deserving of attention currently is the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012, also known as “the septics bill.” It requires counties to establish development tiers indicating where major and minor subdivisions will be located and what type of sewerage will serve them according to a framework established in State law.  There are few surprises in Baltimore County’s response to this mandate, made public last December.  Most growth is planned on public sewerage within the URDL, much of it through redevelopment  in areas called Community Enhancement Areas, which we have alluded to on many prior occasions.

What seems to be lacking from these and other plans the County has put forth for the URDL are specifics on conservation of open space, which is well documented as being in very short supply and key to the success of any redevelopment effort.  That’s where we hope to make a contribution. Much like the citizens who turned to Ian McHarg in the 1960s for help in crafting a conservation plan, we are turning to the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program and our constituents to develop a plan for conserving open space for a variety of social, economic and environmental uses within the URDL. We are fortunate indeed to have strong support for this effort, including, but not limited to, a grant of $1,000 from  the Maryland Environmental Trust and the Janice Hollmann Grant Fund, a one-year grant of technical support from the National Park Service, and, most recently, a $5,000 grant from the Rauch Foundation. A final meeting of our stakeholder group to engage in the promised “pairwise comparison” of the goals, objectives, and criteria we developed together will be announced shortly.  If you are interested in participating, please let us know by filling out the form available here.

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