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Valleys Planning Council committed to maintaining rural character of land

Half a century ago, William Trimble and some of his neighbors gathered to debate the future of their rural lifestyle in the valleys of Baltimore County.

This scene along Mount Zion Road is typical of the 130 square miles of pastures, fields, horse farms and gentle streams in the valleys of Baltimore County about 20 miles from downtown.

Development pressure, he recalled, was growing after construction of the beltway began in the mid-1950s, bringing with it the seeds of suburban sprawl.

“It was at a time when politics was rampant and there was basically no plan being followed,” Trimble, 77, an attorney, recalled this week.

So he and a group of landowners in the Caves, Worthington and Greenspring valleys set out in 1962 to fund a plan to preserve their open space. They raised $125,000 and hired landscape architect and University of Pennsylvania professor Ian McHarg to write the now-famous “Plan for the Valleys.”

Then they lobbied Baltimore County planners for some of the most restrictive conservation zoning in the U.S.

“It was an uphill battle because it was an unproven idea. There was a lot of faith,” he said. “Now we’re seeing pretty much what we saw 50 years ago.”

This weekend, Trimble and about 300 others will gather to celebrate the 50th anniversary of those efforts, evident in the 130 square miles of rural pastures, agricultural fields, rolling horse farms and gentle streams that lie about 20 miles from the concrete-laden urban core of Baltimore.

Headed by the nonprofit Valleys Planning Council, the efforts have involved three generations of valley residents, each carrying the torch of preservation so evident in the bucolic vistas today.

“A lot of people think we are a ‘no’ organization, but that is not the case,” said Peter R. Fenwick, president of the board of the VPC. “We want it to be very well thought out.”

Fenwick and his family live on a 170-acre farm off Tufton Road that has been owned by his relatives for decades. It has been placed in conservation easement with the Maryland Environmental Trust, meaning that it will not be developed in return for state tax credits.

He said he has learned about the importance of land preservation from his father, Charles Fenwick Sr., who has been an active member of the VPC for years.

“My generation and the younger residents here are aware to take care of what we’re seeing today,” he said. “It took a lot of work to do what we have.”

On a recent early fall morning, Fenwick pointed out the simple beauty of the countryside: one-lane bridges crossing glistening streams, large picturesque barns, simple country churches, weathered cemeteries and tidy homes of all sizes.

But with Baltimore County going through a comprehensive zoning process every four years, such sights are perpetually in danger, Fenwick said.

“Zoning is dependent on who is in office,” he said. “It can always change. There is constant pressure for development. It is very valuable land.”

Teresa Moore, executive director of the VPC for the last eight years, said the group, which includes more than 500 families, works regularly with developers and county planners on any proposed developments.

“We try to work things out ahead of time,” she said.

Bu the VPC has had to go to war with developers several times during its lifetime. Such conflicts are called “special projects” and require private donations to hire attorneys and preservation experts to oppose development and sprawl.

One recent proposal by BGE to locate a new substation in the valleys was resolved without a legal challenge after the energy company, with the help of VPC members, located another property off Route 30 in Baltimore County, outside of the Piney Run Rural Legacy area.

Another effort 14 years ago to halt development of the Hayfields Country Club on former farmland off Western Run Road was not as successful.

The VPC lost that zoning battle and today a golf course and luxury housing development stand near the Hunt Valley corridor on Shawan Road at one of the gateways to the Worthington Valley.

“When I first took the job here, I was afraid I wouldn’t be busy enough,” Moore said of her challenges at the VPC. . “That’s not been the case. I feel like a foot soldier that’s on the front line.”

The nonprofit is one of hundreds of land preservation groups across the U.S., where 47 million acres are now in conservation easement. A total of 15,000 people are board members of such volunteer groups that have a total membership of about 5 million, said Rob Aldrich, spokesman for the Land Trust Alliance, based in Washington.

“They are a shining example of the power of nonprofits in building community, strengthening economies and saving land,” LTA President Rand Wentworth said in a statement.

“Because of the foresight, dedication and continued vigilance of the Valleys Planning Council, Baltimore County will have a landscape with positive impacts that will serve residents for generations to come.”

VPC board member Caroline Montague, who lives on a 142-acre farm that’s also in a conservation easement, said the promise of keeping land pristine for future generations is her inspiration.

“My parents used to point out roads and highways and developments and tell us what they used to look like,” she said. “So I always had this sense of paradise lost. I think that my children will not have that here.”

The VPC’s anniversary celebration will include the premiere of a documentary film by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Allen Moore that will highlight the five-decade effort to preserve the valleys.

It will be shown Friday night at the Baltimore Museum of Art, followed by a cocktail party. Saturday, the group will host a farm fair at Fenwick’s farm on Tufton Avenue.

“I’ve always had a great deal of respect for the far-sightedness of the original organization to look ahead to see the problems that would come about if something wasn’t done to preserve that precious landscape,” said John “Jack” Dillon, a former executive director of the VPC and a former Baltimore County planner who drafted the restrictive rural zoning that still stands today.

The zoning is supported by the lack of public water and sewer lines in the preservation areas.

“It has continued to exist and represent the interests of the people in and about the valleys that have an appreciation for that landscape,” Dillon said.

To watch a video accompanying this article, click here.