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High & Dry: Growing our Ridge-Top Community

By Dave Pyatt

Mark Twain was once asked for investment advice. "Buy land; they've stopped making it" was his response. The housing industry has been in a slump for over a decade or two, forcing a recent storm of rising house prices. So, buy land and build houses. Conceptually, it's a no-brainer. The rub is that it isn't so easy. The relatively level spots along river plains were developed long ago because they were level, so they became cities. They also had good water supplies.

Mount Airy has two main bugaboos that stand in the way of development--lack of water and a complex ridge geometry that limits roads spanning the ridge, mainly allowing growth parallel to the ridge, e.g. Main Street and Route 27.

Carroll County has the Patapsco River, lots of farmland, reservoirs dedicated to Baltimore City, but generally no large-scale water supplies for future growth. Yet it is a big target of opportunity simply because it is still largely undeveloped. A large study was done by an engineering firm to identify water development (Malcolm Pirney, Inc.) well over a decade ago, but it came up dry.

Mount Airy has aquifers, but good producing wells are elusive to find. But, if you're lucky and hit one, it's usually a high capacity well. Mount Airy has rugged terrain--my house is over 850 ft. in elevation--and the first Town Master Plan in the 1970s said it was unlikely that the Town would ever be developed because it was on a steep ridge. I think the population then was roughly one fifth of what it is today and one eighth of what it could be if planned developments, including the Harrison-Leishear annexation, take place. In the past, development proceeded in spite of these obstacles and eventually found the required water. But we may be at a tipping point with regards to traffic congestion.

When I served on our Town Council for 24 years, I took a graduate level course in hydrogeology in order to assess the situation during a dry spell about 20 years ago. I found the textbook answers didn't work too well in fractured well aquifers we enjoy in this area. So, we're back to throwing darts at a geological chart and hoping if we drill enough wells, we'll continue to grow with new water discoveries. As I recall, it's roughly 10 dry holes for every find. And there is some wiggle room on what a "find" is.

What we're also finding out with a ridge geography, and what the B&O railroad learned a hundred and fifty years ago, is that it's hard to have transportation networks, e.g. streets and roads, going against the grain of the ridge. So, there are only a few roads going from Route 27, this now congested and dangerous highway, that was built in the 1960s as a bypass (imagine that) to the center and western portions of the Town. Consequently, we often have traffic "gridlock." This includes both local and North-South commuting traffic on Route 27.

I'm somewhat sympathetic to our current elected officials since they get presented with a lot of facts, and it takes years of experience to see through the fog and get a clear picture. There are some advantages to "affordable housing" and "our kids can't afford to buy a house in their home town" is often used as an argument.

I know I'm somewhat spoiled since I believe we live in the greatest City anywhere, and I take my daily walks to Wildwood Park and to the Library (where I'm writing this letter, by the way), and I can walk to shopping at the Mount Airy Shopping Center, but I have to fib about walking across Route 27 along Park Avenue at the light to my wife. So, you have to factor that in.

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