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Farmer has the chance to cultivate a vital legacy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE STATE OF Maryland, Baltimore County and a farmer named Arthur Tracey have an opportunity to leave a lasting treasure to the children of this state, and it's sitting just up the road from Towson. Right now it's a soybean field. With some big thinking, it could be something grand.

Not that there's anything wrong with a soybean field.

In fact, a lot of people would be happy to see the soybean field stay. It's the farmer who doesn't see the need anymore, and that's what makes this an issue.

The land is on Middletown Road. If you drive up Interstate 83 - north of Hunt Valley, one of the more scenic stretches of highway in the state - past Peter Angelos' big horse farm, past Gunpowder Falls State Park and the Hereford Zone, exit at Middletown Road and head east, you'll come to it in seconds. In fact, you can see the soybean field from the highway.

A couple of years ago, farmer Tracey inherited this land and a large parcel on the opposite side of Middletown Road, 187 acres in all. There's a farmhouse and buildings that look like they were standing when Confederate soldiers conducted raids in northern Baltimore County. East of the soybean field is a modern Catholic church, Our Lady of Grace, with a growing congregation.

If farmer Tracey and a developer have their way, the great swath of green between the highway and the church would be turned into a development of nearly 50 houses, priced at around $400,000 each.

Pretty predictable stuff these days.

Parkton residents have been fighting the plan, calling for far fewer houses on the site. Tracey has resisted requests that he put the land in agricultural preservation. He says he needs to sell it to make enough money to cover debts and save another 400-acre farm on which he lives.

Big chunks of Middletown Road, west of I-83, already have gone to development, and more land in the area is proposed for single-family houses. But this particular proposal stands out because it could tip the balance and dramatically change the rural nature of Parkton, transform countryside into boring suburban sprawl, diminish open space and cropland, and eventually add burdens to the local government for additional services.

Fifty big houses on 187 acres might not sound too bad, but the Middletown Road tract, a highly visible development right off a scenic highway that welcomes millions of tourists into Maryland, presents a high-profile test of the county's ability to think grandly about the future while preserving its character. It's a test of whether Baltimore County embraces Smart Growth. (It does, doesn't it, Dutch?)

Agricultural preservation would still be the best course. Farmer Tracey could get a nice settlement for giving up his development rights and still own the land. He wouldn't net as much cash as he could by selling out for maximum development, but the deal probably would settle his debts and leave him a tidy sum. And the land would remain open. Going the ag-prez route would leave everyone in Parkton - and everyone in Baltimore County who cares about open space - with a good feeling.

Tracey received a great gift when the late Edward Ensor and his wife, who was Tracey's sister, bequeathed him the land. It would be nice - there's a notion for you - if he shared that gift with the children of Baltimore city and county.

Tell you how you might do it, Mr. Tracey.

Let's set this land aside, restore it to its historic best - what it looked like before Colonial times - and use it for a vast nature classroom for schoolchildren from all over the state. Trees, grasses, wildflowers, all native to Maryland, would be planted there by students and their teachers over the next two decades in a project planned and coordinated by educators, scientists, environmentalists and volunteers. The land would have a hike-bike course, amphitheater and log building to facilitate lectures, and a small camping area for overnight visits. Thirty acres could be kept in crops, where future farmers could be taught environmentally friendly growing techniques.

The state and the county could pool funds - as happened for the purchase of Cromwell Valley Park in the early 1990s - to compensate Tracey handsomely for his land, guaranteeing him the absolute top dollar from the ag-prez program, with a little more thrown in from a nonprofit conservancy or citizens group. (Maybe Parktonians would like to contribute to a special fund for the purchase.)

For agreeing to the sale, for making a wonderful gift to his Parkton neighbors, new and old, and to the schoolchildren and future farmers of Maryland, Arthur Tracey gets a prominent spot of his own in the preserve, a special place between two shade trees where he and his descendants can hang a hammock any time they like.

We'd even name the place after him: The Arthur Tracey Nature Center.

That's my idea.

I've stuck my nose where you probably think it doesn't belong. But that's what I do, and preserving open space and a community's character are things I care about as a citizen.

In the end, of course, this is all up to you, sir. It's Tracey's Choice. You have to decide between making maximum dollar for that nice old land or doing with a little less in return for something that could benefit thousands of kids for a long, long time. Preserving the land would be an enviable legacy. You ought to think about it.

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