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Owings Mills at a crossroads


Baltimore County's decision to give up after years of planning to dam Red Run in order to create a 100-acre lake as the crown jewel for Owings Mills is a major blow to that growth center.

After spending $2 million on planning the lake, county officials finally realized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would never approve flooding the trout stream. Like a pair of people on a blind date, each wishing silently for the slow dance music to stop and their awkward clinch to end, the county and Army engineers waltzed around the Owings Mills lake issue for seven years, each afraid to reveal its true feelings. The corps never forcefully expressed its opposition to the concept, while the county refused to draft an alternative plan to the lake, fearful that would send the wrong message. Without the lake, county officials must also now reconfigure the sewer line through Owings Mills, which is critical to fostering a balance of development throughout the growth center.

The controversy over Red Run is Baltimore County's snail darter. Chances are the stream the Army engineers want preserved will change anyway because, with or without a lake, 12,000 units of housing have already been approved for the 3,000 acres around that area.

In place of the lake, county officials will begin the lengthy process to seek approval for a less dramatic alternative: a stream valley park. That may sound serene, but chances are the Army corps won't allow much in the way of public facilities for the park if it is determined to retain a trout stream in spite of the small city growing up around it.

Owings Mills -- near the beltway, a city subway line and the county's emerald valleys -- has a blessed location where expensive homes are being built. The developers of Baltimore County's largest subdivision, Owings Mills New Town, report strong sales even in a sluggish economy.

But the county can pencil in the zoning for lots more housing and still not achieve an enduring, successful community if it fails to shape a growth center where people want to live. They need look no farther than downtown Baltimore, where the Inner Harbor energized residential building that would have seemed impossible a few decades ago.

The arresting image of sailboats dotting a lake would have acted as a similar magnet for Owings Mills. County officials and developers -- who were going to donate land for the lake -- now must work to ensure that an attractive recreation area emerges. And the Army corps must show flexibility in helping to shape a recreational open space for an area that is destined to house 70,000 people.

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