Sunday, October 20, 2013

What is this "Place" About?

It's a thicket, at least it was until last Saturday, a half-acre lot in Historic East Towson now known as Adelaide Bentley Park.  NeighborSpace purchased the property in 2009 to protect some green space for a community surrounded by urban uses on all sides, including Stanley Black and Decker's parking lot.

But what's the place about?  This question was put to me yesterday by one of 14 men from the Jones Falls Ward of the Church of Jes
us Christ of Latter-day Saints who spent the morning helping us to begin the process of creating a park on the site.  Every executive director loves a question like this because it gives you a chance to recite your elevator speech.  I was prepared with mine.

"It's about improving the livability of communities with open space," I said, "because it's in very short supply in this part of the County. Towson is a first-tier suburb of Baltimore City, among the first areas where former City dwellers relocated  in the housing boom that followed the Second World War. There were no rules in place then requiring developers to set aside open space," I explained.

The young man didn't run away, so I went on: "Then in 1967, the County created a growth line (the URDL), confining future population growth to most of the same places, like Towson, that grew tremendously after WWII.  So, these 2 historical events are a 'double whammy' when it comes to livability and NeighborSpace tries to change that by protecting open space for small neighborhood parks, which is what is planned here, as well as for trails and environmental uses." (For a short video about all of this that is much more interesting than anything I might say, click here).

As I've reflected on my response, I've decided it really wasn't very good.  I didn't talk about the "place." Gertrude Stein, upon re-visiting the developed Oakland, CA community in adulthood that had replaced the agrarian community she experienced in her childhood, said of it that "there is no there there." Translation: It lacks culture, soul, life, and identity.

That's not true of Bentley Park. First, and foremost, it's recently named after Adelaide Bentley, a long-time resident of East Towson and a strong community leader who is credited with keeping developers from buying up homes and destroying this tightly knit and, largely, African-American neighborhood.

Adelaide Bentley receiving park dedication citation on July 20, 2013
(Photo credit - Patuxent Publications)
The property abuts a 33 acre site owned by Stanley Black and Decker, a Fortune 500 company with a century of power tool production experience and what the Sun has called "a storied history in the area."  This campus serves as the company's "Construction and Do It Yourself" headquarters, where many new products are developed.  The oldest building there dates to 1917, when the company obtained its first patent for a power tool.  It turns out that Mrs. Bentley worked there for 15 years.

Many other people have contributed to the soul of this place. Nancy Goldring,  Adelaide Bentley's granddaughter, lives behind the park and has been our eyes and ears on it for years. She's also been a generous supporter of NeighborSpace during that same span of time.

Marsha McLaughlin, John Alexander, John Murphy and Eric Rockel are four NeighborSpace board members who have all shaped the park in their own ways.  Marsha, a landscape architect who has more than her share of obligations in her day-job as head of Planning in Howard County, has been instrumental in organizing the clean-up of the site and in rekindling discussions about its future design. Eric played a large role in the parcel's acquisition, and along with Councilman David Marks, deserves credit for dedicating the park to Mrs. Bentley. Among many other things, John Alexander and John Murphy showed up with chain saws and other equipment to work side-by-side with the men from the Jones Falls Ward yesterday.

Larry Simmons, a special assistant to the County Executive, was our connection to the 14 men from the Jones Falls Ward and secured a County DPW dumpster for the cleanup. Linda Foy from BGE gave us permission to park the dumpster on BGE's easement, which made our work yesterday A LOT easier.

Larry Simmons (left) & Bd. Member John Alexander (right)

Last, but most definitely, not least, are the 14 men from the Jones Falls Ward of the Church of Latter-day Saints, who descended on the site and transformed it incredibly in the matter of a few hours.  I don't have all their names, but they were led by Brent Petty, a Johns Hopkins physician by day (3rd from left in photo), and by Dave Rueckerte (wearing the "Army" shirt).

With their gift of time, effort and enthusiasm, they have left an idelible footprint on the place that is Bentley Park and bouyed us incredibly to take the next steps in creating a park for the Historic East Towson Community.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Another Take on What is Truly "Transformational"

Much has been written about the transformational power of conserved land.  Comparatively little of this writing focuses on urban sites. We want to change that, given our focus on conserving land within Baltimore County’s inner suburbs, and to start with the story of our Gwynn Oak Ave. Site in Woodlawn.

Our acquisition of this small parcel, boasting nothing more than a quarter-acre of grass and two apple trees in 2009, led community members to form the Greystone Community Association, uniting two neighborhoods that surround the site: Broadacres and Carlynn Heights. The Association’s leadership then went on to do great things for the newly united neighborhoods.  They successfully sought grant funding from the Baltimore Community Foundation to erect gateway signage on the site and they began a series of community programs there, uniting people of different races, ages and interests.  National Night Out has been celebrated on the site with outdoor movies, and flea and farmer’s markets have been held, along with other community events. In the process, an otherwise nondescript plot of land has become a community focal point, a collective gathering place where residents become neighbors and neighbors build and strengthen their bonds.  For this reason, we choose to launch our Inaugural Membership Campaign with this video salute to the Greystone Community Association for its work in programming our Gwynn Oak Ave. Site. If you are moved by the truly transformational power of land conservation shown here, we hope you'll show your support for it by joining NeighborSpace today.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

8 Facts about the Open Space Waiver Fee Matters Currently before the County Council

The County Council is currently considering one bill and two resolutions regarding open space waiver fees that developers pay when they are unable to provide the open space required by the County Code.  Bill 31-13 changes the percentage of the fees coming to NeighborSpace from “up to 10 percent,”  language found in Section 32-6-108 of the County Code currently, to “15 percent” and for the first time establishes a cycle for reviewing the fees (4 years).  Resolution 43-13 establishes a new fee schedule and Resolution 44-13 asks the Planning Board to study the matter, addressing many of the problems enumerated below and requiring that recommendations be submitted to the Council by October 1.  Here are 8 facts I want to share with you about this situation:

1. Open space and livability are huge problems within the URDL, where 90% of Baltimore County’s population lives on 1/3 of the total land area. For a short account of the problems and their origins, watch this brief video.
2. Absent any context, the proposed fee reductions look draconian.

3. Developers pay no impact fees or excise taxes for things like roads and schools in Baltimore County.  The fees they currently pay for open space, however, are higher than any development fees charged by other metropolitan Baltimore jurisdictions (my research) and higher than fees charged for open space alone (County research) in urban residential zones. 

4. The current rates for open space waiver fees date to 2006.  Pressed for an explanation about the methodology for setting these fees, the County could provide none.

5. Legislation passed in 2009 and  governing the vesting of development plans gave any approved projects in the pipeline on or before August 17, 2009 four years to vest (i.e. record a plat and pay the waiver fee) or lose  development approval. Few development projects went forward during the recession; so, August 17, 2013 is a deadline that looms large for many developers doing business in the County – hence, the current press for changes to the fees.

6. The problems with current laws requiring a developer to set aside open space or pay a fee in lieu thereof are much bigger than simply the amount of the fee and what portion of it comes to NeighborSpace. It can be effectively argued that  current law and policy:
  •      Do not Address Pressing Open Space Needs within the URDL Effectively: The current policy requires open space to be provided on a development site. If a developer could pay a fee that would allow the Department of Recreation and Parks or NeighborSpace to create open space on another local site, pressing community open space needs nearby might also be addressed. NeighborSpace’s soon-to-be-released Strategic Conservation Plan for land within the URDL could aid this evaluation.
  •     Are not Sufficiently Fair or Predictable:  The amount of the fee should be tied to a justifiable methodology that reflects the true cost of the open space that must be provided as a result of the development project. The current proposal, which is the basis for the fees in Resolution 43-13, to base the fee solely on the average assessed value of raw land does not account for improvements required by the Local Open Space Manual, such as boundary markers, clearing, grading, and replanting in accordance with the Landscape Manual, as well as providing both vehicular and pedestrian access. A fee based on 130% of the cost of raw land might be a closer approximation of the revenues needed to provide the open space required. In addition, the fee schedule should be revisited more regularly than every four years, as proposed in Bill 31-13.   The market that tanked in 2007 is rebounding.  Other counties revisit fees regularly and base them on average SDAT residential land reassessments plus a construction cost index, such as the 20-City Annual National Average Construction Cost Index from The Engineering New-Record (which Anne Arundel County uses to adjust its fees annually).
  •      Lack Transparency about the Development Fees and the Methodology for Setting Them:  Every other metro county I reviewed, with the exception of Carroll, publishes its current fees on the county website.  Arguably, the methodology and process for establishing the fees should also be published.
  •     May not be the Most Effective Means of Ensuring Quality Open Space:  NeighborSpace has offered to work with the County and with developers to review how effective the current laws and policies are in creating meaningful open space.  Resources will always be limited, so we need to strive to create open space that achieves multiple goals – protecting our environment and enhancing the livability and desirability of our communities.  Achieving these goals will make Baltimore County more attractive for continuing private sector investment and will support the tax base that is needed for other public services.
  •      Do not Incentivize Redevelopment within Community Enhancement Areas (CEAs):  As development inside the URDL continues and density increases we may need additional incentives for redevelopment projects in CEAs, those areas designated in the Master Plan for redevelopment and accommodation of population growth.  Higher density and mixed-use developments in CEAs will require a different approach to open space requirements, with less emphasis on size and more on usability and amenities.

7. Members of the NeighborSpace Board and I discussed the above concerns with County officials and with developers and had hoped that they could be addressed in legislation that would be approved this summer.  Unfortunately, there are just too many problems to be investigated and questions to be decided for that to be a realistic timeframe for resolution.

8. For these reasons, NeighborSpace testified in support of Resolution 44-13, introduced by Councilmembers Quirk, Marks, Almond, & Olszewski last Tuesday and asking the Planning Board to study these issues. I am hopeful that NeighborSpace will be able to share the foregoing concerns with the Planning Board in the coming months and welcome your feedback on the issues as I have described them here.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Plans, Precepts, Policies, and People in Baltimore County Land Conservation Since 1960

“If you do not know how to ask the right questions, you discover nothing.” William Edward Deming, American Business Philosopher and Consultant

Several seminal events have taken place recently that impact land conservation in Baltimore County. Not all affect NeighborSpace directly, but they are, nonetheless, noteworthy. As I reflected on them, they seemed so disparate, which intrigued the problem solver in me who is, at once, owing to various training, categorical, detail-oriented, and visual. What started as a simple blog post to relay interesting news, ended up as a 12 hour extravaganza exploring the plans, precepts, policies and people that have shaped land use and conservation in Baltimore County for over 50 years – a veritable rabbit hole to Wonderland – but, nonetheless, an experience that led to greater understanding and appreciation of those who have laid a foundation for the next generation of work that must be done.

Using a timeline as an organizing element, I have begun to chronicle the precepts (laws), policies and people (organizations) that have evolved to make the landscape that we all know as Baltimore County look as it does today. This is by no means a finished product and I welcome suggestions for changing what can only be called an initial draft. As a rough drawing, the timeline succeeds in giving us some information we might not have gleaned from prose alone. One cannot help but notice a shift in concern in the last 10 years, for example, from issues related to protecting rural lands to those concerned with the thoughtful redevelopment (and infill) of more urban areas. Both urban and rural conservation efforts are still simultaneously important, but if our timeline has a story to tell, it is that we who are concerned with infill and redevelopment in the 200 square miles of land that lies within the URDL should take a page from our forbearers on the rural side and approach our conservation tasks thoughtfully. And no organization has been more thoughtful in approaching land conservation in Baltimore County than the Valleys Planning Council (VPC), which dates to 1962 and is where I originally wanted to begin this post.

If you’ve witnessed the timeline, you know that VPC just turned the corner on 50 years of age in 2012, and, in honor of that auspicious milestone, its leaders commissioned a movie about the plan that was the genesis of the organization. (There was a public screening of the movie at MICA in February that I attended and we hope to arrange another showing for NeighborSpace members shortly). The plan that drives the movie, known as the Plan for the Valleys, dates to 1963 and was authored by landscape architect Ian McHarg, who taught at the University of Pennsylvania and was a principal at the firm of Wallace McHarg Associates in Philadelphia. It is one of several chapters in a larger title called Design with Nature, a text that has been required reading for students of planning and landscape architecture across the country since the late 1960s. And, because of the foresight and fortitude of the members of the Valleys Planning Council, the McHarg plan was implemented, the Greenspring and Worthington Valleys were protected, and the Urban Rural Demarcation Line (URDL) was enacted with the result that, today, 90 percent of the County’s 807,000 residents live below the URDL on 1/3 of the County’s land area and roughly 25 percent of the land beyond the URDL is protected with conservation easements.

There are those who might say that the foregoing results are hardly ideal given the many shortcomings we have outlined in earlier posts about walkability, underutilized impervious surface, and the lack of open space in communities within the URDL. True. But what few people know is that there are rich aquifers underlying much of the land within the valleys and that they feed the reservoirs (e.g. Pretty Boy and Loch Raven) that provide much of our drinking water.  If they were densely developed, the aquifers and our drinking water sources would suffer, a result  arguably more unpalatable then the other challenges we face.

Moving on, I want to note that, as is the case in every General Assembly Session, Program Open Space (POS), which dates to 1969, and its sister programs (Rural Legacy, MALPF)  are once again threatened with having some their funds diverted to other uses. If you don’t know, POS is what the State uses to pay for parks and what county governments use to augment local funding for acquiring and enhancing park facilities.  It’s also the reason that people complain that Maryland’s real estate closing costs are so high – POS is funded from a modest tax on our closing costs. But that resulted for many years (at least until 2002) in Maryland conserving as much land as it developed annually, a claim that few states could ever make and an especially important achievement for the 5th most densely populated state in the country.  Please see the details of this year’s attempts to make an end-run around one of the soundest land conservation ideas there has ever been, and what you can do to help by clicking here.  As we note in the timeline, counties are required to update their plans for spending POS funding every six years, and we are in one of those years.  Please click here to comment on Baltimore County’s plans by March 31.

Another element of our timeline that is deserving of attention currently is the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012, also known as “the septics bill.” It requires counties to establish development tiers indicating where major and minor subdivisions will be located and what type of sewerage will serve them according to a framework established in State law.  There are few surprises in Baltimore County’s response to this mandate, made public last December.  Most growth is planned on public sewerage within the URDL, much of it through redevelopment  in areas called Community Enhancement Areas, which we have alluded to on many prior occasions.

What seems to be lacking from these and other plans the County has put forth for the URDL are specifics on conservation of open space, which is well documented as being in very short supply and key to the success of any redevelopment effort.  That’s where we hope to make a contribution. Much like the citizens who turned to Ian McHarg in the 1960s for help in crafting a conservation plan, we are turning to the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program and our constituents to develop a plan for conserving open space for a variety of social, economic and environmental uses within the URDL. We are fortunate indeed to have strong support for this effort, including, but not limited to, a grant of $1,000 from  the Maryland Environmental Trust and the Janice Hollmann Grant Fund, a one-year grant of technical support from the National Park Service, and, most recently, a $5,000 grant from the Rauch Foundation. A final meeting of our stakeholder group to engage in the promised “pairwise comparison” of the goals, objectives, and criteria we developed together will be announced shortly.  If you are interested in participating, please let us know by filling out the form available here.