Releasing its first study of deteriorating communities, the Baltimore County Office of Community Conservation paints a dismal picture of Essex and Middle River.
The report, including dozens of recommendations, describes an overpopulated area beset by growing crime, a declining income base, dilapidated public housing complexes, unstable school populations and a lack of community leadership.
"It's sort of like the moment of truth for the area," said County Council Chairman Vincent Gardina, reviewing the 23-page draft at a community meeting Thursday night over doughnut holes and coffee in the World War II-vintage Victory Villa Community Center.
"We have to turn it around, or else it will become the ghetto of Baltimore County."
Focusing on an area that also maintains expensive waterfront properties and neighborhoods with manicured lawns, the report offered hope for turning around the decaying sections of the east county and support to neighborhoods that have begun to fight back.
Among the report's major concerns:
* Last year, the Essex police precinct received 60,000 calls for service, with 11,000 reported crimes and 4,000 arrests. Five apartment complexes -- including the Riverdale Village Apartments and Villages of Tall Trees -- accounted for the bulk of the cases, which included considerable narcotics and prostitution activity.
Much of the crime is centered in 31 low-income housing complexes, and there is mounting concern over organized gangs controlling the crack cocaine market and the attendant violence, the report said.
* Three elementary schools -- Deep Creek, Sandalwood and Mars Estates -- have annual turnover rates exceeding 60 percent.
"During what are arguably the most important educational years, the kids are shuttled from school to school, often due to a move of only a few blocks," the report said. Only four of the area's 12 elementary schools ranked higher than the national average in math and reading. Attendance is a major problem in the middle and high schools.
* A tremendous stock of housing was built before and during World War II to accommodate migrant workers at the Glenn L. Martin Co. aircraft plant. At one point, the region of Middle River was almost renamed Martinville.
But now that housing has become part of the problem as the jobs have left the area, and the transience of a large portion of the community has had a major effect on stability.
Jack Dillon, senior county planner for the 5th District, said some of the findings of the report "were very startling, but we are not telling the people who live in those areas anything new."
"One of the things that struck me was the significant portion of census tracts of people over 55," Mr. Dillon said. "Many, if not most of those folks, also have houses well over 50 years old in Essex.
"They have very nice homes but are not represented by community associations. My concern is the housing mortality rate of modest cottage homes, very well maintained, that will come on the market and unless purchased by honest-to-goodness homebuyers . . . could turn into rental properties. A downward spiral could take place; it could be massive in a couple of years."
* In a community where many depend on public transit as the sole means of transportation, the lack of adequate public facilities becomes much more apparent, the report says. "Is it reasonable to expect residents of Back River Neck to take two hours to travel one way to the health care center on Franklin Square Drive and then take another two hours to travel home?"
"It's a job that can't be accomplished by government alone with legislation and money," said Mr. Gardina, whose 5th District encompasses Essex and Middle River. "Some of these people have to clean up their own acts; it's a matter of attitude."
pTC Edward Ziegenfuss, executive director of the Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce, who chaired the education committee's portion of the report, called it "an honest look at our bad side while keeping in mind the good things, the strong areas of our communities."
"I was amazed at how all the community folks pulled into committees and worked with government," he said. "We
shouldn't languish too long; we should move forward into the master plan cycle as strongly as we can."
Others, such as Paul Michael Blitz, said that although it was important to attack problem areas, residents should be proud of the positive side of Essex and Middle River.
Mr. Blitz, an Essex native and archivist with the area's heritage society, said homeowners once competed for "Lawn of the Year" awards.
"Many places in Essex still have that small-town feeling," he said. There are $300,000 homes on the Back River Neck peninsula and on Wilson Point, the annual air show and boat races, a restored 17th century farmhouse, lots of third and fourth generations living in the neighborhoods."
County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III requested that a conservation plan be developed for the area and about 75 community and business leaders took part.
The report will be made available to the area's 63,000 residents for further input and will be presented to the county planning board in January. Public hearings will follow.
Officials have designated $3.5 million this year for revitalization countywide, and nearly half of that is expected to be directed to Essex and Middle River, Mr. Gardina said.