A newly formed environmental group is bringing surrounding neighborhoods together to draw attention to the need for more trees and open space — and to have a say in Baltimore County's development approval and comprehensive rezoning process.
The Green Towson Alliance includes representatives from 10 Towson-area communities so far, with plans to add more neighborhoods.
In a press release last week, the nonprofit group says, "A large group of Towson environmental activists has joined forces (and) is already monitoring Towson's development process in an effort to increase greenness and open space in downtown Towson."
The volunteer group "is moving quickly because key development decisions are being made now which will impact what Towson looks like in the next five to 10 years," the release states. The alliance "is targeting public policy regarding development in core Towson and other government policies that impact Towson neighborhoods. The coalition is also educating Towson residents about protecting and preserving the environment in their communities."
Co-founders Dr. Carol Newill, a retired internist and Stoneleigh resident, and Wendy Jacobs, a retired CPA who lives in West Towson, said clout is part of their aim.
"We've both been active in greening efforts in Towson," said Newill, co-chair of the Stoneleigh Community Association's Committee on Greening and Recycling. "We decided that we were feeling alone in our efforts. We decided it would be better if we joined forces."
Jacobs called it "lonely work" and said a group effort is needed in fast-growing Towson.
"There is this rapid urbanization taking place in downtown Towson and we thought we could lend a voice that was previously missing," said Jacobs, who is a greening volunteer in West Towson.
Alliance members have been meeting for about three months with County Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson, on projects including forming a task force to advance the Towson Greenway, a proposed series of trails and green spaces throughout Greater Towson.
The alliance has also issued a "white paper," making recommendations to the county Planning Department on its proposed Towson Urban Center Overlay District. The county legislation calls for the creation of a special design-oriented zoning district specifically for the downtown Towson area.
The white paper lobbies in part for the protection of shade trees in the area and the creation of on-street bike lanes, public plazas and recreational areas to draw more pedestrians and bicyclists to downtown Towson.
"This is an outstanding group," said Marks, who named Jacobs a Fifth District Citizen of the Year late last year and last week appointed Newill to be a Fifth District member of the Baltimore Commission on Environmental Quality. "I agree with their goals and am including them in a lot of discussions, from the development of the Towson Greenway to the new overlay district."
Mike Ertel, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, praised the new group.
"They are really advocating for things that have traditionally been beyond the scope of the GTCCA focus," Ertel said. "We welcome their advocacy in Towson."
Other members of the alliance are Beth Miller, of Anneslie; John Keenan, of Idlewylde; Nick Lineham, of Loch Raven Village; Bill Deisher, of Ridgeleigh; Larry Fogelson, of Rodgers Forge; Carleton Sexton, of Ruxton-Riderwood; Paul Saleh, of Southland Hills; and Joe La Bella, of Towson Manor Village.
Newill said the Towson-wide alliance is the first of its kind that she knows of.
La Bella, a special education teacher at Dunbar High School in Baltimore City, said he was recruited to the alliance by Jacobs, and that he has been greening programs in Towson Manor Village and trying to start a greening committee within the Towson Manor Village Community Association. La Bella said he also co-chairs the association's park improvement committee, which is trying to get the county to make improvements to Towson Manor Park.
La Bella said he joined the alliance because, "We just felt there hasn't been enough focus on the green and environmental aspects of Towson. We as a group think it's really important to have a green agenda. We really need to push for appropriate green development."
Already, the alliance has organized tree plantings in several Towson neighborhoods, including 226 in West Towson, with another 44 planned there this fall, according to the press release, and has also been involved in stream cleanings and tree preservation projects.
Until the alliance formed, much of the greening efforts were at the neighborhood level. Newill said Stoneleigh residents, working with groups such as Blue Water Baltimore, have planted more than 500 trees in the past 14 years.
"We're in it for the long haul," she said. "We're planting trees for our grandchildren. Somebody has to plant them."
Newill also said the Stoneleigh Community Association is sponsoring a Dumpster Day recycling event at the Stoneleigh community pool on Sept. 26 from 8 a.m. to noon.
The alliance is taking up neighborhood concerns such as trying to convince the county to stop cutting down healthy trees. One, a willow oak in West Towson, is on the chopping block because it is buckling a sidewalk, Jacobs said.
"We would like to work with Baltimore County to save the big old canopy trees," she said, adding that invasive vines are also a big threat to trees. She and Newill said trees help provide shade, are good for birds and other wildlife, and can also help aesthetically to draw shoppers to downtown Towson.
But alliance representatives are also insinuating themselves into the county's planning process. Newill said she testified at a recent County Council meeting about the importance of open space and that Fogelson has spoken to county officials about rezoning issues.
"We are also interested in having a voice in local politics," Jacobs said. "We think we have a lot to offer."