Award-Winning Journalist Talks Smart Growth
BERLIN - The Worcester County Commissioners' vision of a rural county dotted with self-contained communities was reinforced at the Tuesday's smart growth presentation by Pulitzer prize winning journalist Tom Hylton.
'In a way, I'm kind of wondering why I'm down here because you're doing all the right things,' said Hylton.
Hylton described driving through Salisbury on Route 13, calling the area a 'junkscape.'
'When I crossed the border to Worcester County the clouds parted,' he joked.
Hylton spoke for over an hour Tuesday night at Stephen Decatur High School on how to prevent sprawl and create and maintain communities.
'This is all basically out of the county's new comprehensive plan,' said Sandy Coyman, director of Comprehensive Planning for Worcester County and one of the event's organizers.
The lecture series, which will continue April 4, will illuminate aspects of county planning for the public.
'It's to get the public familiar with what we're advocating,' said Worcester County Planning Commission Chair Carolyn Cummins. 'I hope the community comes out and sees us talking about what we're doing so they're not surprised when the new zoning code comes out.'
County Commissioner Judy Boggs said it's important for the public to understand the differences between reasoned planning and rushed planning.
'We want people to be aware there are things to keep the county rural and still have communities,' said Boggs. 'There is good planning and bad planning and we want to make sure we get it right the first time.'
Hylton asked, 'Does it make a difference how we arrange the things we build? There's growing recognition in this country that it does make a difference.'
Real communities are walkable and bikable, according to Hylton. Buildings sit close to the tree-lined street, on small lots, not separate and set back.
'For the last 50 years we've been moving out of our traditional centers,' Hylton said.
However, Hylton said people are beginning to understand that sprawl is not sustainable. There are physical and social effects, one of the most notable the slow erosion of community feeling.
Minorities and the poor are more isolated, air pollution takes its toll, and increased asphalt and impervious surfaces from sprawl make droughts and flooding worse, according to Hylton.
'A real community has a mixture of all races and all incomes,' said Hylton.
Real communities are also pedestrian friendly, not car-centric, Hylton said. They embrace trees and hide parking lots.
'Beauty and order is vital to our well being,' Hylton said.
In over 20 years of newspaper reporting, Hylton said he saw that building real communities alleviated crime and stress.
This is not a pie in the sky vision, but one that can be created through zoning laws, mapping, and comprehensive plans, according to Hylton.
'Normally, zoning in this country does exactly the wrong thing. Zoning separates things,' said Hylton. 'You want zoning to bring things together so you can walk.'
Zoning, he said, should also govern aesthetics and can keep historic towns, like Berlin and Snow Hill, historic by making new construction look the part.
It is not just the code itself that needs to be changed, but the way the code is presented to the public.
'The average citizen should be able to read it and understand it,' he said.
Large street trees are also vital, Hylton believes. They should be planted every 30 feet along a street, and should populate parking lots to the tune of one for every two spaces.
'A parking lot is a very, very good thing to landscape because there are so many of them and they're very, very ugly,' Hylton said.
Developers need the help of clear illustrations of concepts and requirements, he said. His local planning commission can even call in design professionals, on an ad hoc basis, to help developers out, thanks to grant funds.
Redevelopment and infill construction are essential to Hylton's method.
'The last place you want to build anything is virgin land. In America it's the first place, but it should be the last place,' Hylton said.
Boggs believes in this approach.
'We want to retain our open spaces. We are a rural county. There is no reason that we can't,' said Boggs. 'We don't want the whole county to be developed and turned into sprawl.'
Joe Hill, a member of the Berlin planning commission, asked Hylton to comment on the impression he gets that people feel protecting downtown Berlin or Snow Hill is enough.
All areas count, said Hylton.
'We can choose to take the sprawl approach and make Worcester County just like any other place, or develop real communities that really work,' said Coyman.
Hylton said it's vital to remember what makes certain areas special.
'I think this is a guiding principle that will never let you down. What is it that makes you special?' Hylton said. 'You're a very desirable place to live and you can have high standards and you can enforce them.'
Boggs said Hylton's praise of the county's approach to development was encouraging.'He validated the direction in which we're going,' Boggs said. 'That was good to hear.'