County should work to reserve open space

Kai Hagen

May 12, 2005

If only I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say they did not want Frederick County to end up like Montgomery County, or observe that it already has.

Of course, such comments are made for different reasons, such as congested roads, increased crime, higher taxes or the loss of open space.

No matter what, however, the antipathy always reflects problems associated with the rapid growth experienced by our next-door neighbor, which will surpass 1 million residents before long.

Nevertheless, in spite of the intense and sustained population pressure that has dramatically and permanently altered most of the once rural piedmont landscape of rolling farms and forests, Montgomery County has managed to accomplish something truly special.

Last week, the county celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Master Plan for Preservation of Agriculture and Open Space, perhaps the most successful open space preservation program in the United States.

The result of the county's unusual commitment is the continued, if still threatened, existence of an unlikely and unique 90,000-acre "agricultural reserve." Unlikely? Unique? Well, for perspective, consider that no other county in the country has found a way to match the accomplishment, and only a handful has even come close.

It's remarkable that the residents and elected leaders managed to pull it off in the first place, and maintain it for a quarter of a century, so far, in the face of relentless pressure from development interests.

What was possible then, would not be possible today in Montgomery County, which has added some 400,000 residents since 1980.

And what is possible today will not be possible tomorrow in Frederick County.

The Frederick County Board of County Commissioners should see the example that has been set for us, and seize the opportunity to extend the ag preserve across the southern portion of the county.

If we do not, the preserve on our border will eventually become an isolated island of farms and woodlands surrounded by a sea of suburban development. Instead, we can do our part to enlarge and protect a beautiful and diverse corridor of rural America along the northern shore of the "Nation's River."

In addition to the existing ag preserve, we already have a good foundation to build on. The Frederick County preserve would include Sugarloaf Mountain, for example, a Registered Natural Landmark notable for of its geological qualities, natural beauty and striking vistas.

It would include the Monocacy River Natural Resources Management Area, and a few miles of the Monocacy River, which is designated a Maryland Scenic and Wild River. The area could encompass much of Bennett Creek, which flows from Little Bennett Regional Park in Montgomery County to the Monocacy River, and Tuscarora Creek, which flows directly into the Potomac.

And, finally, it would further protect the C&O Canal National Park, which runs along the entire southern edge of the county.

These areas serve as ecological anchors and public recreation areas, but it's the farms that make it an ag preserve. And in this area, the county still has broad swaths of fertile and productive farmland, nearly 3,000 acres of which has already protected through various programs and easements.

This isn't the place to spell out a detailed preservation strategy, but there are plenty of tools available, such as Maryland's Program Open Space, GreenPrint, the Rural Legacy program, and a program featuring the transfer of development rights.

No less important, in the immediate future, anyway, would be to ensure that current ag zoning means more than just "hasn't been rezoned yet."

In other words, where there's a will, there's a way.

It's a big idea. But it's not a new idea. It's already been done in our neck of the woods. And that was before a lot of the knowledge and tools were around that would make it easier today.

This is idealistic and realistic, entirely possible and practical.

When some people say they don't want Frederick County to become like Montgomery, they are really saying they don't want the county to become one big sprawling suburban landscape. If we can agree about that, and understand that preserving agricultural landscapes is a part of that, then what are we waiting for?

Of course, if we wait too long, at least the residents of Point of Rocks, Adamstown and Buckeystown will still be able to head over to Montgomery County to pick strawberries and pumpkins, or to bike or drive on quiet country lanes.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at