On Baltimore County's waterfront


The area around Middle River in southeast Baltimore County has been an environmental disaster for years. A consultant's report to that effect was issued in February 1992, although it hardly came as a shock to residents who had witnessed the deterioration of the river, its tributaries and its watershed over the decades. In fact, local septic tanks have become so polluted that public water is being installed in the peninsula between the Middle and Back rivers.

Those sections of the 1990 county Master Plan dealing with the peninsula urged action to protect the area, particularly its rural and less populous lower half. Community leaders in the 5th councilmanic district took the hint. They began drafting a Master Plan amendment that called for limited local development, reduced zoning density and stricter enforcement of environmental standards.

Baltimore County's Department of Planning and Zoning, 5th District council member Vincent Gardina, the Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce, local citizens' groups and marina owners were among those who took part in writing the amendment, which the council approved last Monday. While it amounts to no more than set of advisory guidelines, the amendment should serve as a manual on the best uses of this sensitive piece of land in the coming years.

It should be an oft-consulted manual because county officials have big plans for this and other east county waterfront areas. With heavy industry in the region declining and initial steps toward environmental recovery being taken, the government now views the county's coastal stretches as fertile ground for economic development. They envision mixed-use developments combining homes that don't overwhelm local amenities and light industry that might be lured by the access to Baltimore's harbor and Maryland's interstates. And the waterfront, cleaned up, could again be the warm-weather destination it was a century ago among residents of the metropolitan area.

These plans are years away, however. For now, residents are thrilled with the amendment's passage. They were especially anxious to have it approved before area landowners moved forward with huge, possibly harmful developments.

The natural splendors of Baltimore County's waterfront have been abused too long. Perhaps that will change with the council's codifying of a philosophy that aims to defend and preserve a peninsula that is fragile yet filled with potential.

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