While the Abingdon-Emmorton area grows at a faster pace than any other part of the county, some residents worry that the community is suffering from a severe shortage of open space that can only get worse.
As the population in that area of Route 24 grows -- it has increased more than 56 percent since 1990 -- the percentage of land available for parks, recreation facilities and undeveloped natural areas within its borders is shrinking, some residents say.
"We're probably 500 acres short on recreational land," said Bonner Smith, a member of the Abingdon Planning Council, a group of residents who will have a hand in revising the county's master land-use plan this year. Mr. Smith and others on the council have been surveying the amount of open space in the many residential neighborhoods of Abingdon-Emmorton.
Harford officials won't estimate the deficit of recreational acreage, but they agreed there is a pressing need for both "active" and "passive" open space in the Abingdon-Emmorton community. Active space generally refers to such public facilities as baseball diamonds and soccer fields, while passive space could include a stand of trees, stream bed or woodland trail.
"There is definitely a need for more playing fields," said County Parks and Recreation Director Joseph E. Pfaff. "But we also need to protect green space so that we can have parks and places to explore and appreciate nature."
Most of the existing recreational land in the county is on public school grounds, where the school board and the parks department share the cost of facilities such as athletic fields that are used by schools during the day and recreational leagues evenings and weekends.
County regulations also require that some new housing developments, particularly townhouse and condominium developments, provide a certain percentage of open space, depending on the size of the project. But some residents complain that the open space ends up being storm-water management ponds or a stream running under a culvert that is not ultimately usable.
"I don't think there is a single need that is more important than others," said Mr. Bonner after presenting his subcommittee's report to the full planning council Wednesday.
"But being only one ball field short can affect hundreds of kids," he said.
Mr. Pfaff agrees.
He said 1,000 children take part in Emmorton recreation offerings, "and they could easily take 300 to 400 more" if there were facilities to serve them.
The population of Abingdon-Emmorton has increased from about in 1990 to almost 32,000 this year. Projections for the year 2000 put it at more than 39,000.
The Emmorton Recreation Council area alone has about $223,000 in escrow for purchasing land, Mr. Pfaff said. But finding suitable, affordable land for recreational use in the rapidly growing area is difficult, he said.
And it doesn't come cheaply. The average cost paid by developers for an acre of land in the T-shaped development envelope defined by the Route 24 and U.S. 40 corridors was $46,000 last year.
Most of the money in escrow accounts comes from residential developers who have opted to pay a fee in lieu of turning a certain percentage of land in new subdivisions into open space. The fees are pooled into a large account used by parks and recreation to purchase larger, usable plots of land or to develop or improve existing sites.
While some planning council members Wednesday suggested a moratorium on allowing developers to pay instead of providing open space, county planners said that won't necessarily solve the problem.
"We've been getting open space in developments," said community planner Ed Steere. "The bigger problem is that it is fragmented."
He said the parcels tend to be scattered within the subdivision, and too small for more than a "tot lot" with one or two pieces of playground equipment.
"The real deficit in open space is in public access," said Tony McClune, chief of current planning for the county. "If a developer provides 2 acres, it gives kids in the neighborhood a place to throw a ball, but it doesn't provide space for, say, a league game to be played. In any area, there's a need for both types of places."
Typically, residents don't want to drive to other parts of the county to hike, bike, swim or play golf, he said. "The idea is to have the facilities in the area where the houses are. That's how the development envelope should work."
He said that in recent months planners and developers have tried to be more creative with open space, including lumping together parcels of open space from two adjacent subdivisions so it can meet the needs of a Little League game as well as provide a scenic spot for sitting on a park bench.