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.” 

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