With its master plan for middle-class housing in the Honeygo area, Baltimore County is taking decisive action to close the barn door. Now the question is: Has the horse already escaped for good?

In the 1970s and '80s, Baltimore County devised visionary plans on paper for town centers in Owings Mills on the county's northwest side and White Marsh in the northeast. The problem was that the plans generally languished on paper.

The Owings Mills development got tied up in a lengthy dispute between the county and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over a recreational lake that was planned as that community's centerpiece; the water amenity was later scrapped when it couldn't win the necessary federal approvals. Meanwhile, White Marsh had trouble finding a focus and its plan was somewhat ill-defined. "It was a blob with some horse-trading afterward," county planner Andrea Van Arsdale now says.

In the meantime, Baltimore's other suburban counties had more luck molding and getting infrastructure in place for their growth pockets: Odenton in Anne Arundel County, Abingdon-Joppa in Harford County and Columbia in Howard County.

So the Honeygo plan that the Baltimore County Council approved this past week is an attempt to reclaim the middle-class market that was once the county's franchise, but in the past decade has found other places to call home. Honeygo is slated to include parks, schools, shopping and 5,600 homes, 60 percent of them single-family detached units, in a area hard by Interstate 95 and the picturesque Gunpowder Falls.

It's a plan that -- on paper -- seems like it can't miss, except Baltimore County already knows that plans on paper don't always gel. The vigorous housing market of the past decade will look much different 20 years from now when Honeygo is built out. Aging baby boomers will become empty-nesters and will be looking for smaller homes by then.

Other factors may also impact the success of Honeygo: If the state ever runs light rail to White Marsh as planned, or if the proposed High Occupancy Vehicle lanes on I-95 running into Harford County take effect and frustrate Harford commuters, Honeygo will look all the more attractive.

The greatest challenge of land-use planning is to foresee demographic and social trends a generation before they occur. Honeygo looks to be a solid effort to regain some share of the middle-class residential market. Baltimore County officials have their fingers crossed it's not 20 years too late.

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