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York Road looking south near the beltway
York Road looking south near the beltway (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

As the dramatic transformation of downtown Towson picks up momentum, the urgency grows to make sure whatever open space exists in and around the county seat is preserved — and to ensure that more is added.

Enter the Green Towson Alliance, an advocacy group that brings together activists from 10 Towson-area community groups so far. Their goal: preserve open space. The volunteer group correctly notes "key decisions are being made now which will impact what Towson looks like in the next five to 10 years."

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The group has its work cut out. The members want to educate Towson citizens on environmental preservation, influence public policy, become part of the planning process and, both save the existing tree canopy and plant new trees.

They're going to have clout, too. County Councilman David Marks called the Green Towson Alliance an "outstanding group" whose goals he shares and Mike Ertel, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, said their advocacy is welcome.

Now, too, Marks has proposed a resolution to create a unique zoning "overlay." The Towson Urban Center overlay district would give design guidelines for evaluating new development and redevelopment projects. Community activists want to see more clearly defined open space requirements included in the overlay and the Alliance also has recommendations, including tree preservation, bike lanes and recreational areas.

A holistic approach would re-examine two zoning protocols.

One is in-lieu payments, in which developers can follow a formula to pay a fee instead of setting aside open space as part of a development. The idea is that the fee revenue pays for open space elsewhere. But we see this pay-to-build formula as a way of possibly tipping open space away from places that need it.

The other protocol is "infill" development, which calls for development on small green tracts surrounded by concrete as a way of luring development away from outlying open space. More and more, we believe, these small green spaces are precious remaining green.

Add more green space to downtown Towson? It's far from impossible. In fact, county officials announced in June their plans to acquire 2.5 acres off Aigburth Avenue. A $1.1 million county project would turn it into "passive parkland."

These developments are all part of a bigger picture — keeping the urbanization of Towson within a human scale. With a mix of families, singles, retirees and students living here, and visitors working, dining or shopping here, it's not out of reach for them to be able to sit in the shade, toss a Frisbee around, lie in the grass and hear a bicycle bell without having to leave Towson.

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