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Dumb Suburban Planning: It' not a pretty thing to watch

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The impressive reader response to this column's request for examples of Dumb Suburban Planning has had two major themes -- the regret that open space is rapidly disappearing in the Baltimore metropolitan area and the resignation that people, by their numbers and choices, are making it happen. Numerous letters from both city dwellers and county residents voice reverence for the Earth and ridicule for the cultural forces making it ugly.

Some readers wrote to describe poorly designed intersections and shopping centers. Some wrote of specific ecological hazards. But most of the letters -- the ones that will be quoted in this first DSP reader response -- were about the taking of open space for unsightly residential and commercial development. Some blasted away on aesthetic grounds; others presented more scientific arguments, noting development's impact on land and streams and, eventually, the Chesapeake Bay.

Voice of regret

Through it all there is a voice of regret -- that, 25 years after the first Earth Day, not enough people can see the forest for the trees, even if the trees are no longer there.

"An apparent culture has emerged which covets and defends 'decorated box houses' and their randomness in suburban subdivisions," was how a Towson reader put it. He said he was involved in commercial real estate and asked not to be identified.

"One particularly common example of Dumb Suburban Planning exists in the community along Falls Road south of Shawan Road in Baltimore County," he said. "Here are hundreds of houses with stylized facades scattered across the mostly barren farmland. It is ironic that the residents are now protesting the proposed expansion of a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. substation, which is needed due to the rising demand for electricity in the area. Residents call on legislators to 'Save The Ridge' from expanded development and the BGE facility, but this appeal is akin to closing the barn doors after the cows have gotten out."

Another reader, Paul Schlitz Jr. of Baltimore, detailed 10 examples of DSP. "My life has been this: To helplessly watch things being torn down and 'improvements' that invariably make matters worse. The amount of greenery and topsoil torn asunder in even my brief lifetime has been appalling."

Topping Schlitz's list of DSP, and seconded by several other readers, was Hunt Valley Mall in Baltimore County. Schlitz calls it "the mall that no one wanted." He adds: "It has more than lived up to its lack of promise. . . . This venture is all the more a failure considering that it is virtually across the street from the mammoth [and intelligently planned] Hunt Valley business community where 20,000 people work! It is the Maginot Line of malls and richly deserves its oblivion."

Other favorite targets of readers: Development in Harford County, housing subdivisions along Seminary Avenue in Baltimore County, and the construction of 100 new houses near Cylburn Arboretum in Baltimore, an example of Dumb Urban Planning. "In a city the size of Baltimore," wrote Eunice Haimovitz, "there are enough areas to be redeveloped without touching this beautiful, peaceful area."

'Clean' vistas disappear

What almost all readers seemed to be responding to is the changing landscape -- not just in their immediate communities, but throughout the Land of Pleasant Living. There are good reasons for their regrets.

Undeveloped vistas of farmland and woods were a point of pride in the metropolitan area. But anyone who has taken rides through Carroll or Harford counties, or the outer reaches of Baltimore County, has seen such "clean" vistas disappear in the last decade. As a result, the ride from downtown Baltimore, beyond the Beltway, to the greenest parts of the Land of Pleasant Living takes longer than ever.

Six months ago, the Maryland Office of Planning released the findings of its 1993 land-use survey, taking inventory of development across the state and assessing its impact on what remains of our open space. The survey points to the growth in scattered, large-lot residential development as the "major land-use challenge facing Maryland."

Why? Because such development takes up the most space, and has the most significant impact on future development -- commercial, industrial and public (schools, roads, water supply) -- and on the environment. In short, we're not recycling older urban and suburban areas to the extent we should, and instead of clustering human existence and making wiser use of existing infrastructure, we're "pioneering new frontiers" that yesterday were farms or woods.

If you think we're losing ground, you're right, we are. In many instances, readers say, it has not been a pretty thing to watch.

A Howard reader cited a development in Ellicott City as an "expensive but unattractive housing development. . . . The beautiful forest, once home to ancient oak trees and natural ground covers of ferns and violets, was completely bulldozed and graded beyond recognition [not a single green plant was left standing]; a stone house from the early 18th century was demolished; and the many pristine wetlands and springs that not five years ago were clean enough to drink from were forced into several unsightly storm water management ponds. How this rape of the land could be legal I do not know."

'Profoundly depressing'

Several readers put Harford County on the DSP list for what Dorothy Norris of Bel Air calls the "crime" of taking "lovely and pristine acres of beautiful landscapes" that quickly transformed a country setting. In Harford, writes Pat Stilwell of Joppa, DSP seems to begin with the premise that the natural setting should be removed and the whole space reinvented to suit some developer's idea of how people want to live. It's "profoundly depressing."

"In our neck of the [now] nonwoods," Stilwell writes, "it should really be called something more like Dumb Suburban Happening or Dumb Suburban Confederation of Greedy Dunces. 'Planning' is too close to an undeserved compliment."

Specifically, Stilwell mentions the "eroding acreage" between Route 152 and Edgewood Road. "Until sometime in the mid-1980s this eyesore was thickly wooded, undeveloped land," Stilwell writes. "As I recall, the trees were stripped from the area . . . in anticipation of building a strip shopping center. A brief trip from Joppatowne east through Edgewood will convince you of the foresight of these brave developers; this area is certainly not deficient in strip shopping centers. This land has been gradually washing into the Chesapeake."

Several readers complained about development that begins with the wholesale clearing of the trees, shrubs and undergrowth in which birds and small wild animals thrive.

Larry Mathena of Owings Mills writes about the two properties on Davis Avenue in Granite. On both sides of the road, he says, all the trees were cut and the land cleared. "Driving past this section of Davis Avenue, it looks like a war zone -- as if enemy forces have razed the area with bombs," he writes.

"I am a civil engineer and am well aware of the consequences of this tree massacre: Increased soil erosion, which consequently dumps sediment and excess nutrients into the nearby Patapsco River, and ultimately into the Chesapeake Bay. . . . And the land critters are now hurting for habitat, too. . . . The kicker is that I have fond childhood memories of romping through the once mighty forests on Davis Avenue, following endless trails, building tree forts and shooting my BB gun. My mother still lives on Davis Avenue, and I would have hoped that my children could have gone to Grandma's and enjoyed these same experiences, but these majestic forests are dwindling."

Thanks to all readers who contributed examples of what they consider Dumb Suburban Planning. Watch for more columns on this topic. It's a large and important one, touching on the quality of life in the metropolitan area. Send your comments to This Just In, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

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