It was mid afternoon, and a planned tour of Hampstead was bogged down. A critical error had been made: The driver of the van had pulled off the road to show visitors some of the challenges facing the community.
Now came a vivid example of one of the biggest problems for this northern Maryland community. With an endless line of traffic, it seemed like the van might never get back on the road.
“This,” said Jim Slater, chief of Carroll County’s Bur-eau of Environmental Services, “is actually light yet.”
At the wheel was Dennis Wertz, chair of the town’s planning commission.“It’s times like this,” he sighed, “I wish the governor was in the van.”
The two were guiding a vanful of non-residents, assembled by the nonprofit Center for Chesapeake Communities, who were expected to help the townspeople figure a way out of this mess.
The visitors were conducting a “Community Environmental Review,” an exercise in which a sort of SWAT team of planners, civil engineers, land use experts and others descend on a community to help it realize a “sustainable development” vision for the future. They came to deal with two specific issues important to Hampstead: downtown revitalization and ecologically sensitive site planning, which reduces development impacts on resources.
But navigating those issues is almost as difficult as navigating Maryland Route 30 — Hampstead’s Main Street — which cuts lengthwise through the cigar-shaped community of 4,300 people.
The road runs atop a ridge that also divides the headwaters of two Bay tributaries, the Patapsco River and the Gunpowder Falls. These headwaters are fed with clean spring water that bubbles out of the ground. In fact, the area was originally known as “Spring Garden” when it was surveyed in the mid-1700s.
These spring-fed headwaters provide an ideal home for one of the greatest populations of bog turtles left in the nation. Because so many other communities in the northeast have developed, paved or bulldozed such spring-fed systems, the bog turtle is now listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act.
As luck would have it, a long-planned bypass, which would steer Route 30 around Hampstead, runs smack through bog turtle habitat. Once the bypass is completed, the state would give the old Route 30 to Hampstead, where officials hope to revitalize the downtown area along a less-congested road.
For now, the bypass plans are on hold. Further studies are needed to determine whether the bypass, and an accompanying 400-acre industrial park, will harm the turtle.
The new delay has irked many. Newspapers have been filled with angry comments toward the turtle. Griped one: “You can’t stop progress for a turtle … I don’t see what function they have in our society. We don’t eat them.”
Bog turtles aren’t the only ones who seem to find suitable habitat in Hampstead. Two developments of more than 200 homes each are on the drawing board for the town. Officials want those developments to tie into a revitalized downtown — once the bypass gets the traffic off the road.
Can bog turtles, motorists, pedestrians and businesses all find happiness in Hampstead?
To help find out, the town council last year voted to become one of the first jurisdictions in the Bay watershed to undergo a Community Environmental Review.
The reviews are organized by the Center for Chesapeake Communities, a new nonprofit organization established with the aid of the Bay Program to help educate and train local governments in sustainable development techniques.
The first review took place last year in Warwick Township, in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County. A third is planned for later this year in Warrenton, VA.
During the review, a half dozen or so experts with different backgrounds scrutinize a community’s ordinances, tour the town, learn about local goals and suggest ways the town can reach them while maintaining a healthy environment and promoting a strong economy.
The review is low cost — essentially two days’ room and board for team members.
“We have used consultants extensively, but to be honest, this was a relatively cheap way of getting a lot of the experienced people into our community to talk about some of the specific issues surrounding our town,” said Larry Hentz, a member of the Hampstead Town Council.
It may be cheap, but it isn’t necessarily easy. To be considered for a review, a jurisdiction must have applied to become a Bay Partner Community, an initiative of the Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee that recognizes local governments striving to meet Bay Program objectives, such as managing growth, protecting watersheds, promoting stream buffers and so forth.
Because the reviews are aimed at results — not plans that sit on shelves — participating communities must have an active planning process that any recommendations can be incorporated into. In the case of Hampstead, for example, efforts are under way to develop a new comprehensive plan.
In the aftermath of the Warwick review, the township has begun to incorporate some of the zoning recommendations into their ordinances. It has begun a watershed management plan as recommended by the review team, and tightened up its “growth boundary” — in effect reducing the amount of land available for development.
“We want to see the same sort of results come out of the Hampstead review,” said David O’Neill, director of programs for the Center for Chesapeake Communities. Implementation is emphasized, he said, because reviews can never take place in each of the roughly 1,650 local governments within the Bay watershed. But communities can learn by seeing what their neighbors are doing.
The review isn’t just a matter of people coming in and lecturing to the locals. Review participants have to learn firsthand about the community’s problems — like traffic jams — before they can offer any usable insights.
“There’s not many communities where I would say this [bypass] is a good thing,” said Cindy Stone, of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. “After sitting in traffic out there, I tend to agree with you.”
Indeed, a bypass can spawn business development that hurts downtown areas. But in Hampstead, traffic is so bad it’s already a hindrance to businesses. “I think the vast majority of people are for the bypass,” said Wertz, of the planning commission.
The six-mile bypass has been on the drawing board for years, but is now closer to reality than ever. Most of the design work is completed, and much of the land has been acquired.
People — and town officials — are beginning to see the opportunity for a revitalized downtown where people want to live and business wants to locate.
Wentz acknowledged that the downtown has a way to go, starting with the basics: Signs sometimes conflict with the look they would like for the area, sidewalks need improvement, some buildings have deteriorated.
Meanwhile, the town has purchased a vacant old, brick bank on Main Street that it plans to renovate and use as a police station. Nearby, an old mansion known as “Main Street Manor” has been restored and is now a beauty salon and tanning spa. “This is an example of what can happen on Main Street,” Wertz said.
The town is taking other steps as well. It has acquired the old abandoned train station that is now on the town logo. It has begun requiring sidewalks in most new developments.
The full staircase leading to revitalization is not yet envisioned. The review team seemed to think that Hampstead had many of the right building blocks in place but it was ready to suggest a few more steps.
The team emphasized the need for officials to view downtown not just as a business district, but as a the “heart and soul” of the community, where people would come to walk, where festivals could take place, where people can come to meet.
That’s what makes downtown different from privately owned shopping malls, noted Sheri Stuart, of the nonprofit National Main Street Center. “Downtown belongs to us all.”
They emphasized the restoration of historic buildings as a way of preserving the town’s unique character. “You can have old houses, or you can have historic buildings,” said Marcia Fritz, who has worked on historic preservation in Chestertown, MD. “The difference is how you think of them.” One, she added, is a resource; the other an ongoing problem.
By spring, the review team will put into writing more concrete ideas that Hampstead can use in moving toward its goals.
They may recommend some tweaking of the zoning to promote downtown revitalization and the reuse of abandoned buildings, as well as offering ideas about how traffic could be better managed until a bypass is completed.
They will promote compact, pedestrian-friendly development where people feel inclined to walk from their homes to downtown, possibly even to work. The team will likely recommend that the town hire someone to specifically work on downtown issues. Ultimately, those and other recommendations will be formally presented not only to the town, but to Carroll County officials as well.
Any recommendations appear likely to be well-received. Hentz, the only council member to vote against having the review, ended up being the only member who participated for an entire day. “I got trapped because I liked what I was hearing,” he said.
Afterward, Hentz said, the review helped him to see downtown revitalization as not just simply a matter of improving sidewalks and burying power lines, but rather as a progression — taken one step at a time — toward the creation of “a vital, downtown commercial district.”
Only about a dozen people showed up for the review — compared to about 80 who attended Warwick review. Hentz called the turnout a “disservice.”
He said he — and probably others — misunderstood the purpose of the review. He thought it would just be an exercise in rewriting ordinances. Instead, Hentz said, “this was really about the future of Hampstead, and all the issues facing us.” He said he would push for another review next year, and have it more heavily promoted.
While the town can start making small steps toward its overall objective, the big hurdle — the resolution of the bog turtle issue, and therefore the bypass — remains largely out of its hands.
State and federal agencies are already meeting to work out a long-term plan for protecting the bog turtle. Their strategy is to protect not only the immediate area affected by the bypass, but the entire stream corridor where bog turtles live.
Bog turtles — the smallest turtles in North America — live in a series of small clusters in specialized habitats along the streams. Even if turtles aren’t directly in the path of the road, they can be doomed if the small, individual populations become cut off from each other.
That part of the bog turtle protection effort may be beneficial to Hampstead as well. Town officials, to protect their vision of a revitalized downtown, want the state and county to restrict access to the bypass, thereby curtailing the potential for development along the new route.
But Hampstead needs to do its part too. And that’s where ecologically sensitive site planning comes in. Covering the ground with roads and buildings disrupts the hydrology of the groundwater which, in turn, could dry up the springs that feed the bog turtle wetlands with clean water.
The review team will likely recommend that the town adopt “low-impact development” techniques. Unlike traditional stormwater management, where runoff is shunted off to a pond or other holding device, low-impact techniques reduce impervious surfaces and allow numerous opportunities for stormwater to infiltrate the ground — rather than funneling all of it down the storm drain.
That protects streams by reducing runoff — and the pollutants it carries — while maintaining the hydrology important for bog turtle wetlands, as well as maintaining local groundwater supplies.
“What’s good for the bog turtle up here in Hampstead is good for the Chesapeake Bay,” said Scott Smith, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
In fact, he said, the turtle could be viewed as a local resource itself. “I think Carroll county is unique for a lot of reasons,” he said. “From an ecological point of view, I think one of them is these neat little creatures around here.”
Ultimately, Smith — and members of the review team — said the bypass, the revitalized downtown and new housing can all take place while protecting the unique turtle, which needs a stable supply of fresh spring water to survive.
Indeed, what many initially thought was a big headache, Hentz said, may yet prove to be a big positive for the community. “There’s actually been some talk of making it the town mascot,” he said.