The proposal by Carroll County commissioner Donald I. Deli to extend Interstate 795 into the county has provoked a healthy public debate about the wisdom of such a road, but the discussion needs to be broadened. Instead of talking just about roads, the focus should be on Carroll's future.
People sense that Carroll is on the cusp of change. Fields are turning into subdivisions. Quiet rural roads are becoming busy thoroughfares. New faces are showing up in schools, churches and grocery stores. Children of long-time residents are moving away as they can't find jobs or affordable housing.
As much as many residents would like to freeze -- or turn back -- the clock, that can't be done. Carroll can't isolate itself from the social and economic dynamics that are changing Maryland and the United States. Neither, however, should residents feel helpless in the face of these massive changes.
Too often people persuade themselves that their decisions don't matter; they feel powerless. But Carroll's citizens can shape the future for their children and grandchildren.
In 1954, people feared that the rebuilding and widening of Route 140 to Westminster would result in the county's becoming "another Glen Burnie." Extending I-795 into the heart of the county, opponents say now, will result in Carroll's becoming "another Pikesville." People worried about the county's Southwest plan to create village-type developments claim it will re-create Columbia in Carroll County. If residents don't want the county to look like any of these communities, they are going to have to articulate a vision that can be applied to Carroll.
Moreover, actions taken -- or in some cases, not taken -- will determine Carroll's destiny. Some of the decisions are reversible; others, such as approving the conversion of farmland for subdivisions, are not.
First, there has to be a consensus on the shape of that destiny. People must translate abstract -- and many times contradictory -- platitudes about the future into concrete plans.
In his book, "The Art of the Long View," Peter Schwartz argues that the way to deal with the future to is examine different scenarios for it. Mr. Schwartz says these scenarios are not necessarily predictions, but allow people to order their perceptions about events taking place today and how they might play out.
In the early 1980s, when he was working for Royal Dutch Shell Petroleum Co., Mr. Schwartz worked on a scenario that the Soviet Union might abandon its planned economy for a market system. At the time, the possibility of that happening was remote, and seemed preposterous. In retrospect, though, it was very in sightful and allowed Royal Dutch to anticipate some business opportunities that others ignored.
During his campaign for commissioner in 1990, Mr. Dell ran on the snappy slogan, "Keep it Country."
Is the county doing all that it can to ensure that agriculture remains healthy and that farmers can make a living working the land?
What happens if the majority of Carroll's land no longer remains in agricultural use? What are the alternatives?
Does this county want to be the bedroom for the Baltimore region? Does it want to expand its industrial base so more jobs are located here and fewer residents will have to commute out of the county?
It is ironic that Mr. Dell, agriculture's most active defender on the board, has emerged as the proponent of measures -- construction of a highway and an incinerator -- that would seem to accelerate Carroll's urbanization. Yet, there are circumstances which these developments might help preserve agriculture. Unfortunately, there has been little discussion of how this might happen.
Many important decisions are made in isolation without any thought given to the full implications. Development permits have been issued in South Carroll for hundreds of houses, for example, while the county's planners are still assembling a master plan for the region. The county is forging ahead on Mr. Dell's waste-to-energy plant without examining the implications of making an incinerator the centerpiece of the county's economic development plans.
Besides Mr. Dell, whose vision seems limited to building an interstate highway and a waste-to-energy incinerator, Carroll's other elected leaders haven't painted a comprehensive picture of what this county should look like five, 10 or 20 years from now. It is up to citizens to fill the void.
What is needed is a citizens' commission on the future that will engage in a extended discussion that lays out the variety of possibilities, thoroughly examines them and the consequences, and then educates the citizenry about the choices. If done right, a consensus can be developed, and public officials can begin making decisions to see that those visions become realities.
If the citizens don't pick up the challenge, then others will determine Carroll County's future -- which may not fit the visions that the rest of us carry around in our heads.
Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.