Land preservation goes urban

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Kembo Road, in the shadow of the city, leads to a chemical manufacturer, a steel fabricator, a trucking company and mounds of muck cleared from the Baltimore Harbor.

A perfect place, neighbors decided, for some preserved land.

Now 116 acres in that industrial swath is guaranteed to remain woods and wetlands, a green island in a gritty area between Baltimore and the dense neighborhoods of Glen Burnie and Pasadena.

Land preservation, so often about saving amber fields of grain, is increasingly gaining popularity in urban and inner-suburban communities across the nation as grass-roots groups try to protect slices of nature - sometimes as small as a fraction of an acre - in places they feel could desperately use a break from pavement.

Such work in the Baltimore area is largely done by volunteers laboring in land trusts. Typically without government money, quite often without any money at all, they are trying to persuade landowners to forgo development in some of the most profitable places to build.

Against all odds, they are seeing some success.

"It's a matter of recognizing that it can be done and it should be done," said Marcia Drenzyk, a founding member of the North County Land Trust, which helped preserve the 116 acres in Anne Arundel last year. "We're doing it and there's no money changing hands whatsoever - I think that's what's even more remarkable about it. We're taking surplus land that could turn into who knows what and turning it into open space forever."

Some land trusts raise money to buy property, but many in Maryland's heavily populated communities rely on property owners donating "conservation easements," which means they still own their land but are legally restricted from developing it.

Activists always point out the tax benefits of such a gift, but they know their chances rest upon finding people with a soft spot for the neighborhood.

Sometimes they feel as if everything is against them because the state's Smart Growth strategy calls for developing leftover spaces in older neighborhoods - the very ones urban preservationists are hoping to protect - as a way to save farmland from sprawl.

The bulk of the state's funding for conservation, though not strictly prohibited from being spent in urban areas, is used to protect large swaths of rural landscape. Program Open Space money that is reserved for counties to buy parkland anywhere was slashed in half this fiscal year.

"The government says, you're Smart Growth so we're not going to give you money to preserve, except for an occasional community park," said Cathy Hudson, an Elkridge resident active with the Rockburn Land Trust in Howard County.

Kristen Forsyth, spokeswoman for the state Department of Planning, agrees that open space is a key part of a thriving community. But she thinks farmland preservation also benefits populated areas.

"The more you protect rural land from development, the more you direct attention back to our established communities," she said.

Still, the national Trust for Public Land has found that voters in more and more jurisdictions across the country are agreeing to raise their taxes so places where lots of people live can add open space, too.

"Preserving land in urban areas impacts a greater number of people because 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas," said Susan Clark, director of public affairs for the trust's mid-Atlantic region. "Making cities more livable by preserving land in them can help prevent sprawl. ... People don't flee cities when they like to live there."

Activists agree that their work is ultimately about community preservation.

"In the past, you had a lot of developable land in jurisdictions like Baltimore County," said Karin Brown, a county planner who also is president of the Mount Washington Preservation Trust in the city. "But now the prime sites are gone, and people start to look at infill parcels, and so the remaining green spaces start to disappear. ... People want to abide by the Smart Growth program, but you also want viable communities, and you can't have viable communities without any green spaces."

A budding land preservation effort called NeighborSpace Baltimore County is one of the rarities in the region with government funding to call its own. Baltimore County gave NeighborSpace $150,000 this fiscal year and promised $100,000 for the next to help acquire small properties in older, crowded communities.

The Rockburn Land Trust, which focuses on the quickly developing communities of Elkridge and Ellicott City, relied on conservation easements to protect small pieces adding up to 55 acres. To counterbalance all the tempting letters that people with spare land are getting from developers, Rockburn volunteers are planning to send their own letters soon - inviting dozens of property owners to a gathering this spring extolling the benefits of preservation.

Development was the spark that persuaded residents of Baltimore's Woodberry neighborhood to start a land trust a year and a half ago, as it became increasingly clear that the city would approve a controversial plan to build a large athletic complex in Woodberry's 106-acre forest. Neighbors are working with city officials and private landowners to preserve a portion of the woods, along with lots of trees around the community - 220 acres in all.

In Harford County, residents used fund raising to good effect in the 1990s to protect 106 acres in the center of the Forest Greens neighborhood, near Aberdeen Proving Ground. The land, a defunct golf course, grew up into a woods that was used as a public park - but it was private land with the potential to be hundreds of home lots. The Harford Land Trust bought it for $153,500, sold nearly all of it to the county for $60,000 and now the land is a park.

The Annapolis Conservancy Board - the only land trust in the state operated by a local government - has another way of preserving open space: Anyone developing in the city has to set aside land, and the board decides which land to set aside.

Steve Carr, the board's staff member, calls these parcels "the last line of defense" because they filter pollution out of rainwater before it rushes into the Chesapeake Bay.

"You would save tens of thousands of acres a year ... in urban areas where it's most needed, and it wouldn't cost a dime.

The North County Land Trust formed about three years ago after successfully fighting off plans to build an auto racetrack in the area. During the battle, residents learned that the Maryland Port Administration was interested in preserving 116 acres of its expansive dredge-containment facility but had no local land trust to turn to.

"What we're trying to do is create an oasis of hospitality in an urban area," said the Rev. James G. Kirk, president of the group, which also holds an easement on 6 acres at the city-county line and is working on protecting 94 acres in the area.

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