A planning decision 50 years ago that we can still applaud today in Baltimore County

Residents of Reisterstown, Glyndon and Owings Mills often take for granted the remarkable rural surroundings that lie just minutes from them by car.

Travel east along Butler Road in Glyndon on your way to the Hunt Valley Towne Centre and you are treated to an eye-popping view of an immense valley of pristine horse farms as far as the eye can see.

Yet we live within a densely populated metropolis of 2.7 million. How is it possible so many of us can practically reach out and keep in touch with our nation’s rural traditions?

Much of the credit for this striking success story lies with a county mandate that carries the ungainly acronym URDL (pronounced like hurdle without the “h”). It stands for Urban-Rural Demarcation Line.

Fifty years ago, the county’s Planning Board, alarmed by the post-World War II housing boom creating uncontrolled growth, took the advice of the Valleys Planning Council. It directed new growth onto land already populated and restricted development in the valleys far removed from Baltimore City.

For half a century the URDL has defined Baltimore County. It is especially prevalent in areas such as ours, where communities abut the rural demarcation line.

For instance, the Reisterstown URDL runs along Bond Avenue — rural with strict development limits on one side, urban on the other side.

The URDL has given Baltimore County the unique distinction of restricting two-thirds of its land mass — more than a quarter-million acres — to rural uses. Ninety percent of the county’s 831,000 residents live on the urban side of the demarcation line, which encompasses 130,000 acres.

At a ceremony marking URDL’s golden anniversary, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz called the URDL the most significant step ever taken by Baltimore County officials.

The Planning Board’s action in 1967, and subsequent endorsement of the URDL by elected leaders over five decades, has preserved farming, protected the county’s watershed, kept the environmental purity of those rolling fields and forests and saved taxpayers billions of dollars.

Thanks to the demarcation line, growth in the county has been limited to a few designated areas, such as Owings Mills. This allows the county to concentrate its spending on schools, roads, water and sewer lines and government services in population centers.

The county has avoided costly sprawl, making local government far more efficient in delivering essential services.

Meanwhile, the beauty of the countryside has been preserved.

Theresa Moore of the Valleys Planning Council pointed to the new Worthington Valley roundabout as an example of how encroaching growth can be accommodated without marring the countryside.

The T-intersection at Tufton, Worthington and Greenspring avenues, on the edge of the beautiful and historic Sagamore Farm, had become a traffic nightmare.

Some 33,000 cars pass this juncture daily. At rush hour, backups can extend well over a mile.

Commuters demanded a traffic signal, but Moore’s group resisted and got the county to agree to a more costly fix: a $1.1 million roundabout consisting of an oval of stamped concrete with a center planter and three triangular “splitter” islands.

The roundabout fits more naturally into the scenery — much like traffic circles at rural intersections in Ireland. Cars slow, then flow through the roundabout more smoothly. Backups are less severe. Meanwhile, the surroundings haven’t lost their rural character.

Once again, the URDL and its protectors triumphed.

Here’s a shout-out to county fathers who developed this unique planning tool, now recognized internationally as the “gold standard” for smart-growth planning. We get to see the benefits of their foresight nearly every day.

Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com. He lives in Reisterstown.

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