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Planners and commissioners want to take control of the town's future

Ashley Andyshak
News-Post Staff

(7/11) Edward McMahon, senior resident fellow for sustainable development at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, spoke to commissioners, planners and residents earlier this week about how officials can control the appearance of development and retain Emmitsburg's small-town character.

"This is the gateway to the state of Maryland," he said. "Every place in America is coming to look like everywhere else, and we need to keep small towns unique, special and invaluable."

McMahon said the key is to build on the town's "vernacular architecture" instead of letting it become a carbon copy of another place.

His suggestions include using form-based zoning, which focuses less on land use requirements and more on the external appearance of buildings. McMahon said small towns need to focus on building design rather than on just inviting more development.

"You need more of what people love, and less of what you don't," he said. "You have to raise your expectations or you'll be competing to the bottom."

The town is updating its comprehensive plan to prepare for future growth, and although there's always a demand for more housing, the town needs to find out how to maintain Emmitsburg's unique feel, said board of commissioners president Chris Staiger.

"Our zoning guidelines are based on the lowest common denominator, the easy subdivision and the cookie-cutter type development," he said. "There's this perception that people want to live on cul de sacs instead of connector roads."

Town manager Dave Haller also liked McMahon's suggestions and wants to tie them into the comprehensive plan.

"I would like to see the town adopt a set of building design standards, and I would especially like to see this for the historic district and all commercial buildings," he said. "I say this because a good set of regulated building design standards would have an immediate effect on our ability to retain the classic architectural beauty of the town, and at the same time they don't have a negative effect on property rights or uses."

The town last updated its comprehensive plan in 1998, Haller said. The planning and zoning commission will continue to work on the plan throughout the summer, and hopes to finish the new draft in the next several months.

"We want to grow, we want to control growth; we want to stay small but we want to grow enough to maybe have our own school," said planning commission member Larry Little, who would like to see the town incorporate more village zoning and designated senior citizen housing.

Village zoning, which was included in Emmitsburg's last comprehensive plan, allows housing, retail and other services in the same area.

McMahon said he's seeing more traditional neighborhood developments being built throughout the state.

"Turning around development is like turning around a super tanker," he said. "There's a very large turning radius, but I think it's turning for the better in the state of Maryland. People are starting to recognize that you don't have to choose between economic growth and development and environmental protection. We can do both."

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