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The Route 15 Scenic Walmart .
June 7, 2006
by Jack Lynch
Robert Black, the owner of Catoctin Mountain Orchard just North of Thurmont, is worried that a plan to build a large retail center right next door to his property will harm his farm. His lines of fruit trees stretch across that beautiful valley, and a lot of folks feel that the viewscapes of the area, against the mountains, is one of the special features of Frederick County, and one that is a particular draw to tourists and travelers. No amount of tourism promotion is going to mitigate the negative impacts of an orchard next to a strip mall.
The Myers farm nestled behind the Shamrock restaurant wants to sell its development potential, be annexed into Thurmont and build a strip mall with a big box store, such as Walmart. The extended environs of Thurmont development are already one of the eyesore spots along the scenic byway of Route 15, do we really need to add something like another Walmart store to such a rural agrarian area? Is the need for such businesses really that great that placement in that area is required? Of course not! It is simply being offered up for sale and redevelopment, and the county has little recourse in its planning, to decide in the end whether that happens.
Even if the county opposed an annexation request by Thurmont, the town can annex the area anyway and wait five years, the change the zoning to accommodate the development of it. The power of the municipality can stand at odds with the county’s power and trump it by default.
Politicians like to say they support the power of municipalities to determine their own future and development, as they at the county level decide their plans, but a clear role for the state and the county exists to define and moderate the wholesale expansion of towns when larger interest are at stake, and sustainability becomes a problem, as when the water supply is outstripped by growth. We have similar long range interests in natural areas overall, and traditional industries like farming.
The town of Thurmont has opted to take the annexation to referendum. In a strange twist of government, residents of the town a couple miles away would get to decide the future of land whose own direct neighbors could not vote upon the changes proposed right next door to their property.
Route 15 was designated some time ago by a long county process as a state scenic byway for its natural beauty, viewscapes, resources and tourism. It was pointed out as an area ripe for land preservation and farmland protection. Historic and cultural resources were noted, along with the business and tourism values from a steady stream of Washington area visitors for various recreational pursuits.
Frederick County had the potential solution to this problem in its hands and under consideration, but rejected TDR’s, or Transferable Development Rights. Yet they are used fairly successfully elsewhere, as in Montgomery County, providing protection for farms and conservation landscapes. The idea is to shift development from land a community wants to preserve and buy out the development potential, then transfer that development potential to another area where the growth and development is more desirable.
What are required are receptor areas to receive the development rights via increases in planned density and zoning allowances. And areas would need to be designated as places where conservation of uses is preserved. More homes and businesses in one place, in order to protect and leave unchanged other areas. This would be a method of meeting state goals for Priority Preservation areas in comprehensive planning. Forest and watershed areas could be preserved for instance.
In a good, true comprehensive plan for the future of Frederick County, we could expect to see a better balance between growth and preservation than the current model of revising the regional plans and recreating the character of areas, we’d have a template for the long term growth and the protection of farm and natural areas would reassure the community of its quality of life and values.
Without a better plan and some new tools to manage the community’s interest from a macro perspective, we keep right on planning for leapfrogging growth and eventual failure, or at least for the small indignities of changes like a Route 15 Scenic Walmart.
We can chalk it up next to the sale of the historic Springfield home, owned by a brother of Thomas Johnson, south of Thurmont, for an expected five estate lots of 5 acres for new home sites. The integrity of much of our legacy of a scenic byway is about to be determined, and unless enough hue and cry results to block these ill conceived choices, our community will suffer further cultural degradations.