Planners meet to discuss needs of region’s Rural Development

AFP Correspondent

NORTH BEACH, Md. (June 24, 2014) — Planners are from Mars, farmers are from Venus. Or at least that’s how it can seem.
Though the two groups sometimes have difficulty finding common ground, each has important needs that have to be addressed in order to build sustainable communities.
That was the message at the Southern Maryland Local Government Exchange, one of three exchanges hosted by the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology. Held in the revitalized town of North Beach, attendees of the Southern Maryland exchange were asked to “Think Global, Act Local.”
“The Hughes Center is interested in agriculture and land use issues,” said Nancy Nunn, coordinator of education, outreach and advancement for the non-profit organization affiliated with the University of Maryland. “But we don’t just look at the issues. We create opportunities for people to come together and develop an understanding of what’s involved. When you build relationships, it makes it easier to work together and come up with creative solutions.”
Topics at the forefront of the second annual Southern Maryland exchange were agriculture and a concept called “Placemaking,” a community-based planning and design movement that aims to reimagine public space to promote social interactions.
Rural Planner for Calvert County, Veronica Cristo, delivered the keynote speech “Creating Community”. She said, “wonderful people are everywhere, but wonderful communities are not.”
“As planners, our job is to be proactive, not just reactive,” she encouraged. “Community is about people. Our community gets stronger when we do things together. [It’s] helping visions come to life.”
The first session, “Sowing Seeds for Growing Needs” was presented by Greg Bowen, former director of Calvert County Planning and Zoning and current director of Maryland Farm Link for the Southern Maryland of Agriculture Development Commission.
Bowen offered planners insight into global versus regional agricultural trends and suggestions for what local and state agencies can do to facilitate regional agriculture.
Emphasizing the opportunities for local agriculture, he said, “We live in an area with a total food expenditure of $26 billion. Citizens here have the highest incomes and education in the country. Local farmers capture much less than 1 percent of the food budget.”
Bowen also highlighted a number of efforts underway in Southern Maryland to promote agriculture including mentorship programs for new and beginning farmers, education to realtors on leasing and selling farmland and support for value-added crops and agritourism ventures.
Rounding out the agricultural theme was a presentation by Bernie Fowler, Jr. who recounted the emotional journey that led him to found Farming for Hunger, a non-profit organization that grows fruits and vegetables for local food banks.
His organization has seen tremendous success in a short period of time. What started out as 400,000 pounds of food donated in 2012 multiplied to 1.65 million pounds in 2013.
Fowler said Farming for Hunger is on pace to increase the amount of fresh produce for the current year.
“I’ve gone from the lowest of lows to ‘there’s not enough time in the day,’” said Fowler. “When you’re planning, don’t forget agriculture. Get outside of the box. We’ve been asked to grow 3.5 million pounds of food next year and that’s because I took a step out of the box.
“Food is the vessel that brings us all together. We don’t just put food on the table, we provide nourishment for the soul.”
In the afternoon, planners looked at the challenges that stem from managing development in rural counties. Will Selman, community planner for Calvert County and Lisa Nisenson, co-founder of A Great Place, gave a talk on “Density Myth Busting”.
“Density is almost never an issue,” Selman told the audience. “It’s almost always something else. Density becomes a code word for issues surrounding density.”
Those issues, he explained, include parking, traffic, loss of privacy, less open space and of course, the elephant in the room, the type of people might be moving into more densely populated areas. Rural counties, he said, don’t want to lose their character.
He and Nisenson stressed the importance of getting input from the community and addressing their specific concerns.
“Use plain language and speak to their level. Translate the need into real life stories,” said Nisenson, a message that echos advice given to farmers when talking to consumers about food and agricultural production.
The day closed with a three person panel, who showcased local planning projects along with the successes of two towns: Leonardtown and North Beach.
Mayor Mark Frazer illustrated the history and transformations of North Beach through photographs.
The town has gone through ups and downs in its hundred plus year history, said Mayer Frazer, but today, it’s one of southern Maryland’s most vibrant communities.
The effort, he said, wouldn’t have been successful without collaboration between citizens, government and businesses.
The Western Maryland Local Government Exchange was the original prototype for the event. Nunn said the exchanges rely heavily on collective input from the regional organizations.
The western Maryland exchange, now in its eighth year, focused on economic development and challenges that the region faces with the lack of affordable housing and high unemployment.
Other hot topics were environmental regulatory mandates and opportunities for new energy sources in the region.
Susan McQuilken, Marketing Executive for SMADC and member of the steering committee for the Southern Maryland exchange said she walked away with a more positive mind set about planners.
“We all tend to work in silos,” McQuilken acknowledged, “This was a wonderful opportunity for us to work outside of the box. When we sit down together, it’s easy to see our common goals. [And] we need each other to get the job done.”
Partners and funding for the various events came from the University of Maryland Extension, Maryland Chapter of the American Planning Association and Maryland Agricultural Education and Rural Development Assistance Fund, as well as other local and regional support.