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THOUGH HE HAD NEVER been in Westminster before, sprawl-fighter Thomas Hylton quickly recognized the town. "This is a really nice town -- built to a human scale," he concluded, after a walk down Main Street last week.

Actually, many of the towns that land-use expert and writer Hylton sees in his travels don't look as good as the Carroll County seat. And, unlike Maryland's county-municipality system, they lack the governmental structure necessary to help remedy their ailments.

Traditional small cities such as Westminster, with a mix of housing and business and a pedestrian-friendly downtown, represent the hope of curbing urban flight and suburban sprawl, Mr. Hylton said during a visit sponsored by the Greater Westminster Development Corp. "They make a lot of sense and are a wonderful place to live."

His message is one championed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, in the "Smart Growth" legislation to stem sprawl and direct expansion to established population centers. Sprawl doesn't just create physical wastelands, Mr. Hylton observed, but also a spiritual wasteland that deprives people of a sense of community and a sense of caring.

Livable cities in the past brought together different classes with their commercial, cultural and governmental institutions in a compact area, one that was readily accessible by foot. Walking everywhere got people to know one another, and thus to care about them.

In one sense, Mr. Hylton is yearning for an idealized past that was fraught with its own problems, which spurred the post-war middle class to flee the urban environs. His quick visit to Westminster missed the strip-shopping and mall development around the town and the uneven housing sprawl on its outskirts that illustrate conflicting development choices.

But the national authority gave a deserved pat on the back to the city, and provided the community much to think about in its plans to revitalize the downtown.

Traditional towns can be the communities of the future, not only through historic restorations but as models for new developments.

More people are recognizing those benefits, Mr. Hylton points out, as the wastefulness of sprawl growth becomes ever more apparent.

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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