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Patapsco Heritage Greenway promoting vision of a more cohesive valley

ConservationNatural Resource IndustryMaryland Historical Trust

There's a reason people want to own or visit properties that back up to open spaces: Nature enhances lives.

And that's why protecting and preserving the Patapsco Valley "is really all about quality of life," says John Slater, president of Patapsco Heritage Greenway, a 13-year-old organization dedicated to ensuring the valley's future.

With an eye toward moving that mission forward, the group will host a public forum at 7 p.m. Monday. The event, "Envision the Valley," will be held at St. Augustine School in Elkridge and is a repeat of presentation of a consultant's final report given this week in Catonsville.

Slater, a Columbia resident who heads a landscape architecture firm, said, "I don't think our open-space systems and historic resources get the attention they should."

To remedy that, changes are in the works for how the Patapsco Valley is defined and managed, he said — including PHG's move to hire a full-time, paid executive director.

Working with the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit based in Washington that has been paid $15,000 as a consultant, Patapsco Heritage Greenway intends to redefine the boundaries of the valley for starters, Slater said. Currently, the established valley encompasses land from Elkridge to Daniels and from Route 100 to Catonsville, he said, basically the boundaries of Patapsco Valley State Park.

"Since environment, history and population affect the valley, ULI says we should incorporate more residential areas into the valley" to provide increased ownership of the land, he said. Patapsco Heritage Greenway has between 200 to 300 active members and an email list of several thousand names, he said.

Expanding the valley's boundaries would help provide a more cohesive group of stakeholders — since half the valley lies in Howard County and half lies in Baltimore County, he said. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources owns and manages the park, making the state a third jurisdiction providing oversight.

A larger, more vocal group would also "give us the clout" to get legislative and funding support that Slater says are sorely needed.

"No one stood up for saving Thistle Mill, and that took it down to the lowest common denominator," he said of recent failed efforts to rescue the historic cotton mill on the Patapsco River, just downstream from Ellicott City. With no funds to stabilize the crumbling structure, demolition is currently underway.

"We don't even have the money to do termite prevention on the Avalon building" in the park area just north of Elkridge off U.S. 1, he said.

"And look at the Thomas Viaduct. It's just wallowing," he said of the stone railroad bridge, located in the Avalon area and dating to 1835.

Patapsco Heritage Greenway is also applying for the valley to become certified in the Maryland Heritage Area Program, which falls under the Maryland Historical Trust. Heritage areas focus community attention on history, living culture and distinctive natural areas through "heritage tourism," according to the program's website.

Last month, Howard County government awarded Patapsco Heritage Greenway a $75,000 grant to pursue certification, Slater said. The organization is in the process of hiring a consultant to undertake the formal certification effort using a portion of the grant funds and has winnowed down the field of contenders to three.

The Maryland Heritage Areas Authority offers targeted state financial and technical assistance within a limited number of certified heritage areas. Currently, there are 12, including areas in Baltimore City and Montgomery County, and each has a distinctive theme to attract visitors.

"MHAA gives away up to $100,000 each year, so that gives you an idea of what we've missed out on," Slater said.

Aaron Keel, a volunteer from the Baltimore district of the Urban Land Institute who is working with Patapsco Heritage Greenway, said the organization tried several years ago to get a Maryland Heritage Area designation but was met with resistance.

"There was a misperception that PHG wanted to encourage tourism-based development," he said. "The designation was exactly the type of thing that NIMBYs [residents who oppose project by saying "not in my backyard"] should have been supporting, but they fought it."

Slater recalled that people "thought we were going to ruin the valley."

Keel said having two counties with jurisdiction over the Patapsco Valley can be seen as a benefit because of the increased geographical area from which to draw interest, as well as a detriment if there is "no integral force pulling everyone together."

"We are putting out information [through the forums] to mobilize the public," he said. "If we can establish a brand that people can identify with, then we can foster community support."

Said Slater: "Patapsco Valley should have a shine and ring to it. It ought to have that 'it's a nice place' quality. There's a lot of untapped potential there. But if nobody's speaking, [those in power] won't be listening."

For more information on the public forum to be held at the Augustine School, 5990 Old Washington Road, Elkridge, send email to president@patapscoheritagegreenway.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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