Before Jim Rouse erected his Xanadu by the Kittamaqundi out in Howard County, Leon Panitz developed the "total planned living" community of Joppatowne in the early 1960s.
It was a modest-sized community of single houses and apartments, focused on a marina and the Gunpowder River. Mr. Panitz also planned a true town center, with a swimming pool, community center, boat-hotel, post office, library, business center and churches.
Unfortunately, the developer soon went bankrupt and the planned center wasn't completed. The pool was taken over and operated as a private swim club; the temporary community center and grounds were acquired by the Presbyterian church.
For over a quarter-century, the swimming pool served as a family recreation and social center, a focal point of the community financed by dues paid the private owner. This summer, however, the owner closed the Joppatowne Swim Club, citing rising maintenance costs, declining membership and a major leak in the facility's plumbing.
The nearby Harborside Apartments complex took an option to buy the land through this December, although the 4.5 acres is not zoned for multi-unit residences.
To keep the pool and develop multi-purpose community buildings on the land, a few citizens formed the Joppatowne Community Center Inc. to buy the property from the Milford Mill Swim & Tennis Club.
Christopher C. Boardman, a longtime community activist and civic dreamer, heads the group of about 100 members. Part nostalgic "Happy Days" preservation mission, part local recreation project, the JCCI also aims to block the spread of apartments in the area.
"The swim club has meant so much to many people over the years, it's a shame to let it die and be swallowed up by more apartments," Mr. Boardman said. The group wants to build an auditorium-gym, day-care facilities and offices to provide a year-round social focus.
This summer, the JCCI began circulating petitions and taking opinion surveys to drum up support for buying the land, for about a half-million dollars, and constructing the new buildings, at a total cost of $1.2 million.
The scheme stirred up as much opposition as support from residents because JCCI proposed raising the money through a special three-year property tax assessment of $100. Not only that, the non-profit group initially wanted to include hundreds of homes outside Joppatowne in the tax district. And because it relied on word of mouth publicity and flyers stuffed into doors, JCCI was suspected of running an underground new-tax campaign.
That really riled Virginia Beaty, a community activist in adjacent Joppa, who remembers when families who lived outside the Joppatowne limits were not allowed to use that pool.
"I am a bit resentful because they tried to include us in the tax area when they need the money, but they consider us outsiders when they don't need us," she groused, showing a little of the community chauvinism that flows from having had five generations of her family living in Joppa. She finally joined JCCI just to keep track of its activities.
Joppatowne resident Donna Woodfield criticized JCCI's presumptuousness: "No one should have the authority to decide that an entire town gets their property taxed for something only a small amount of people might want."
Both women say they would like to see a pool in Joppatowne, but disagree with the approach of the petition group.
In response to criticism, JCCI last month changed its goal to a so-called 55-45 Plan: Individual member initiation fees would pay for buying, renovating and running the swim club (45 percent) while residents of 2,800 houses and 900 apartments would be assessed $89 one time to acquire the remaining 55 percent of the land and begin development of the community buildings.
Mr. Boardman admits that the tax assessment idea rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. "People are having trouble with the economy and keeping their jobs, we had to listen to them," he said.
An engineering survey of the pool's condition is planned soon; JCCI first needed to gauge public interest and to collect some dues to fund such a study, he explained.
While a number of empty-nesters no longer have kids who would use the pool, Mr. Boardman said that residential turnover has produced a new group of people who want the facility. Nearly 600 homeowners support a tax assessment for the pool, according to a JCCI survey, Mr. Boardman said.
Mr. Boardman warns that the community must get the commitment to acquire all the property by the year's end, or it will likely be sold for development, apartments or commercial. "We can't wait any longer on this or the land will be gone," he said.
People like Mrs. Beaty see that as more of the scare tactics used by JCCI, which warned that a used car lot would locate there, or that the seniors club would lose its church meeting place.
"This group wants to buy the whole thing [property] no matter what. That is foolish, unless we have more complete information that supports it," she said.
Meanwhile, an architect has drawn up a master plan for the land and JCCI is pursuing the petition drive. And this fall, JCCI members mowed the weeds that had grown tall around the fenced in pool to show their commitment to restoring the heart of old Joppatowne.
Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.