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Baltimore County master plan: now’s the time to get it right | COMMENTARY

Baltimore County is in the process of updating its master plan, something that it does every 10 years. It is the last opportunity this decade for the county to enhance the quality of life for residents by protecting land from development that is needed to create adequate amounts of networked, publicly available open space in neighborhoods.

The county has failed to preserve enough green space in the past. Sixty-five percent of residents lack access to open space within a quarter mile, or walking distance, of their homes. The livability of many communities suffers as a result, with less affluent ones suffering the most.

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Opportunities to preserve open space, once lost, usually are lost forever. There is no reason to be overly optimistic that the process now underway will reduce the county’s open space deficit.

The heyday of land use planning in Baltimore County occurred a long time ago. The county received national recognition for the Urban-Rural Demarcation Line (URDL) established in 1967 to control suburban sprawl. It was “smart growth” before there was such a term.

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For the past couple of decades, however, there has been a general lack of emphasis on master planning and a marked failure of vision by the county government. County officials eschewed long-term planning for the public good in favor of ad hoc land use decision-making driven primarily by politics and special interests.

State law requires counties to adopt comprehensive master plans to guide development, including redevelopment, and review them at least once every 10 years. The plans must identify the public improvements necessary to support development as it occurs and where those improvements will be made. Baltimore County appears to take the requirement less seriously than most counties.

For example, the county lags far behind its neighbors, including the city, in planning and creating a walkable “green network” of parks and other green spaces connected by trails and paths and readily accessible from people’s homes. The irony is that the county has an invaluable resource that it could draw upon for help.

NeighborSpace of Baltimore County is a nonprofit corporation established in 2003 to serve both as a land trust and an advocate for improving the livability of communities inside the URDL. It is funded by donations and by 20% of the revenue from “in lieu of” fees paid by developers when meeting on-site open space requirements for projects is impractical.

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NeighborSpace has come up with a wide variety of thoughtful proposals for creating the county’s own green network. Those proposals must be incorporated into the county’s master plan to become realities.

The county’s Department of Planning is responsible for the initial formulation of the county’s master plan. In recent years, the department has been the place where land use proposals that would benefit ordinary residents go to die. That must change.

Planning for more open space is a start, but there are other things to be done. The ordinance requiring open space to be set aside as a condition of developing land must be revised to include a rational formula for calculating the “in lieu of” fees used by the county to acquire open space off site.

A 2016 amendment to the ordinance gutted the open space law through loopholes that must be eliminated. The history of open space planning and regulation in the county reflects the low priority given to it by county officials.

The lack of emphasis is especially frustrating because, if done properly, open space planning and regulation has a high rate of return socially and economically. Neighborhoods can be made much more livable and attractive for a relatively small investment of money.

Siting green space is less challenging than siting things like affordable housing projects. Perhaps County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and his planners should look at planning a green network in the county as a chance for a successful experience that they can build upon when tackling other long-term needs.

Hopes were high that Mr. Olszewski would reverse the long-standing bias in county government in favor of the interests of builders, developers and their lawyers, who give generously to the campaigns of elected officials. Those hopes have yet to be realized.

The county calls the master plan it is working on “Master Plan 2030.” Master Plan 2030 is an opportunity for Mr. Olszewski to prove that his administration is committed to improving the lives of ordinary county residents. A viable green network would be one place to start.

David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney in 2014. His email is dplymyer@comcast.net; Twitter: @dplymyer.

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