On a fall day, the landscape in northern Baltimore County looks pretty marvelous. Even the old-fashioned rural roads seem unobtrusive. It's hard not to think: Why hasn't all this gorgeous landscape been ruined, as close as it is to downtown Baltimore?
It's taken me a while to realize why the areas such as the Worthington and Greenspring valleys remain so unspoiled. This week, at a little Victorian house on Pennsylvania Avenue in Towson, I held a 50-year-old report whose precepts have cast a long shadow. With its moss-green paper cover, spiral binding and subdued 1960s graphics, the document reminded me of similar planning documents of that period, when downtown Baltimore's Charles Center was making its debut and the Inner Harbor was in the consideration state.
This Valley Plan is perhaps the least understood of all these ventures. But this weekend the Valleys Planning Council, the citizens group that commissioned this rural preservation plan, celebrates its half-century with low-key events. Among the original board members were art collector Janet Wurtzburger, as well as William Trimble and Frank Bonsal.
I normally write about neighborhoods, but this is a case where the neighborhoods that could have been plunked down in plowed-up ex-farmland never happened. I am sure the existing villages of Stevenson and Butler would have been gobbled up and made unrecognizable. The people who lived in these areas wisely envisioned the impact that the Baltimore Beltway and Interstate 83 would probably be making during the big roads' completion in the 1950s and early 1960s.
They foresaw a situation where the exits off I-83 could become densely saturated housing tracts. They stepped back and liked the unspoiled landscapes extant for centuries.
They found a brilliant landscape architect, Ian McHarg, who had been recruited to teach at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Working with planner David Wallace, the two got it just right. The landowners and Baltimore County government bought into the proposals, and today we have a magnificent piece of rural preservation.
McHarg, who later went on to lay out Mays Chapel Village in Timonium for the Keelty family of builders, was an articulate visionary.
In an old video, he warned of tearing apart lands along Falls Road with "sagging wires, diners, billboards, split-levels and ranchers." He called this a "testimony to greed, stupidity and a tremendous capacity to destroy" that would "expunge … two centuries of good husbandry." He spoke of breaking the cycle "when farmers find it more profitable to sell land than their crops."
I spoke with Teresa Moore, executive director of the Valleys Council, at her Towson office as she unfurled some of the detailed maps McHarg and his staff made of the environmentally delicate terrain of the Piney Run, Jones Falls and Western Run valleys.
"As a group we take on development challenges, but we try to work it out in advance," Moore said.
As an example, she pointed to all the work done by Meriweather Morris, who coordinated an effort with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to keep a regional substation out of the Piney Run Rural Legacy Area north of Glyndon. The utility had considered placing its substation at the old Camp Holiday property. Using a network of extended family contacts and respected confidences earned over the years, the planning group was able to engineer a new location closer to Reisterstown.
Perhaps the real secret here is the fact that the Valleys people won over the Baltimore County government and got an urban-rural demarcation line enacted in 1967. Today half the county north of the Beltway remains rural.
But that doesn't mean there aren't challenges. The residents treasure their old-fashioned, unwidened and curving roads, which they say are in keeping with the character of natural landscape.
And there are cellphone towers.
"We like cellphone service, but we don't like ugly towers," said Moore.
Well, if you look closely, you'll find that picturesque white silo on a barn is not what it seems. It's a cellphone tower masquerading as silage.