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Sprawl alert

IF YOU HAVEN'T been to Baltimore County's Hunt Valley recently, brace yourself. After three decades of initial growth, the business hub is moving into the next stage.

A massive 400-unit apartment complex has risen on a hillside at Interstate 83 and Shawan Road. Nearby, much of the 21-year-old Hunt Valley Mall, such a dud it became a ghost town, is being bulldozed to make way for a $70 million "town center" of shops and restaurants.

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In a way, this is a triumph of Smart Growth because the reconfiguration will bring retail closer to a light rail line that connects the thriving office and hotel area with the city and BWI Airport.

But as development pressures intensify, they increase the danger that the urban-rural demarcation line will be breached. County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and the County Council must make sure that doesn't happen.

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The demarcation line runs just north of the Hunt Valley business center, with I-83 as the western border. For more than three decades, it has contained large-scale development in an area with public water and sewer, safeguarding the rural one-third of the county from sprawl.

Rapacious developers have long tried to nullify the demarcation line.

The most audacious was Victor Posner, the late Miami corporate raider, who dangled all kinds of carrots in his attempt to win permission to build Colvista, a 3,000-unit development, on rural land near Sparks. County officials and agencies, to their credit, were unequivocal in telling him to go away.

Hunt Valley is just down the road from Sparks. Mr. Smith and the current council must show the same kind of resolve as their predecessors to keep the Hunt Valley redevelopment there from leapfrogging into currently protected rural areas.

That may not be easy if the Hunt Valley Towne Center, as the reconfiguration of the old mall is to be called, proves successful. A new avenue, lined with shops and restaurants, will stretch all the way to Shawan Road, making the whole complex more attractive and approachable. That success, in turn, could spur more high-rise construction in the periphery.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with this as long as the demarcation line is not violated. County officials must be on guard against infringement attempts when a new rezoning cycle begins in September.


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