Deep inside the woods called Muddy Gut, surrounded by century-old oaks, Theresa Guckert bends down to examine a little waif of a plant.
On this first day of autumn, the whorled pagonia orchid, its bloom long ago lost, doesn't look very spectacular. But Mrs. Guckert is reassured by the sight of this plant rarely seen in the Piedmont coastal area.
She knows this stretch of land. She has walked the woods and ravines of Muddy Gut -- so-called because it surrounds a tidal creek of the same name. She has watched the soaring dives of the great blue heron, observed the imperial perch of a bald eagle and monitored the silent battle in the tidal marshes where fragile wild rice grass struggles to keep from being overwhelmed by the strong, sterile phragmites.
Mrs. Guckert and the 1,200 other Lower Back River Neck residents consider this land -- 2,000 acres of woodlands, 122 acres of tidal wetlands and 560 acres of open land -- their back yard.
And they intend to keep it.
They have spent two years preparing a community plan for the eastern Baltimore County peninsula. They want strict environmental controls, preservation of the woodlands, marshes
and coastal creeks and limits on development. One recommendation calls for a temporary moratorium on residential and commercial development along the environmentally endangered Sue Creek.
County agencies have praised the plan, and suggested considerable changes. Officials contend that enough regulations are in place to protect the area. Community leaders don't think so. History, they say, has shown that they must be vigilant to keep others from chipping away at their precious commodity.
They remember 1983, when plans to turn 607 acres into a 900-unit residential-commercial complex nearly came to fruition.
The county planning board will resolve the differences before the plan is sent to the County Council, which is the final authority on the matter. However, a victory for the community could have unexpected results.
"The more it becomes a beautifully preserved rural area in the middle of urban sprawl, the more attractive it is to developers," said P. David Fields, director of the county's Office of Planning and Zoning.
The Lower Back Neck Community plan covers the peninsula from the converging point of Route 702, Back River Neck Road and Turkey Point Road down to the Chesapeake Bay. On the east is Middle River, to the west, Back River.
The peninsula is highest along its shore, the land sloping inward, creating a saucer-like effect. The lower peninsula has the largest contiguous stand of mature forest to be found along the county's 173-mile shoreline. Because it is barely above sea level, most of the wetland forest is virtually untouched by development.
According to Jill Swearingen, a former field ecologist for the county Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management (DEPRM), the peninsula is an eco-system of width and volume unduplicated along the county's coast.
"The large contiguous forest is important not only to keep the wide variety of land animals found there, but also to lure many different species of birds, and some rare plants such as the whorled pagonia orchid," she said. "Fortunately, none of this vast forested area has yet been greatly abused by development."
Much of the lower peninsula's development has been in old shoreline communities such as Cedar Beach, Cherry Gardens, Barrison Point and Holly Beach. Once mainly summer vacation spots, these areas became year-round residential communities in the 1960s. The folks in Back River Neck want development limited to these areas. Because of that goal, "the county erroneously views us as being anti-growth," said Bruce Laing, president of the Back River Neck Peninsula Community Association.
As for tighter development and zoning controls, "too many things happen after the fact and once they're done they can't be undone," Mr. Laing said. "Once wetlands are illegally filled in, they are lost forever. It's been our history down here that residents are left to police existing regulations."
Mr. Fields, the planning and zoning director, acknowledges that protections are in place for the peninsula. Still, he understands .. the community's concerns.
"The residents feel very vulnerable to changes in zoning classifications or lack of zoning regulations enforcement," he said. "They feel strongly about their plan and see it as a last-ditch stand."
The community's plan opposes any increase in zoning density on much of the lower peninsula, where zoning is now restricted to one house per 20 acres. During the recently completed comprehensive re-zoning process, the County Council agreed to community recommendation that a moderately residential buffer be established between the heavily developed upper peninsula and the rural lower peninsula.
The proposed zoning changes have not been favored by county agencies concerned about the unfair loss of equity for landowners.
Alfred E. Clasing Jr., a member of the planning board and a resident of the lower peninsula, said he strongly supports the plan's major objectives, but a few things may have to re-considered. "The building moratorium in the Sue Creek watershed, though I agree with its intent, is going to be a tough one because no government likes moratoriums," he said.
Not all property owners share the plan's objective of limiting growth. Former 5th District Councilman Norman W. Lauenstein described members of the Back River Neck community organization as a "small group of extremists who want to stop development and deny landowners the value of their land. They have to learn to share their land."
Mr. Lauenstein's family has 55 acres near Cape May Road where the community wants to reduce the zoning. He asks: "The county has plenty of regulations and plans for the area, why do we need another?"
Already in place are regulatory provisions under the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Program. Enacted in 1984, the program protects shore lines, wetlands and forests, and sets controls for development.
In 1988, the county put most of the Lower Back River Neck peninsula under the program's protection. The county extensively monitors the area. Potential developers who require zoning changes must go through a strenuous and lengthy review and approval process that goes beyond the county's own complicated development procedures.
"This was done in recognition of the environmentally sensitive nature of the lower peninsula," said J. James Dieter, director of the county's environmental protection department. "We feel the
controls we have in place give the community the protection it wants. . . . We want the same thing the community wants: to protect and preserve what is there."
Bob Christopher is one of the plan's authors. "We don't see why the county should have a problem with our plan," he said. "We will not make any changes in our plan that would compromise our values, our land is too precious."