'Reality' exercise tests planning skills

June 03, 2006|by ANDREW SCHOTZ


Using LEGO pieces to symbolize new houses and jobs, about 120 people tried to plot Western Maryland's future during a planning exercise on Friday.

They had to decide how important it is to protect forests and fields, how many jobs should be directed to urbanized areas and if affordable housing is a priority.

A consortium of businesses, nonprofit groups and educational institutions are behind the program, which is called Reality Check Plus.

Friday's version at Hagerstown Community College was for Frederick, Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties. It will be repeated in other regions.


Gerrit Knaap, the executive director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland in College Park, said Reality Check Plus was designed to "stimulate a dialogue" about growth and the issues associated with it.

Knaap said representatives of different interests worked together in 12 groups at tabletop maps on Friday. The mix was intentional, for balance.

Each group was given 150 blue pieces. One piece represented 550 jobs. The total number of new jobs - 82,500 - is approximately what the Maryland Department of Planning has forecast for the four counties by 2030.

Each group also received 150 white and yellow pieces, meant to represent a total of 87,000 new households, another projection for the region. Of the 150 pieces, 30 were designated as "affordable housing."

Knaap said during a recap that the 12 groups didn't vary much in their priorities and decisions.

They also came close to matching actual conditions. For example, on average, the Reality Check Plus groups placed 92 percent of their new jobs within a mile of a highway. The actual current percentage is 90.

During a wrap-up discussion, participants stressed the need for regional planning and pledged to maintain the momentum they gained Friday.

Washington County Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan said the region has been hurt by a lack of vision and unified advocacy.

"We've gotten very little in Western Maryland" because of "political infighting" and "splintered groups," she said. "We're not united."

Reality Check Plus plans to do more research and advocacy on planning, including opinion polls and election-issue sessions, said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, the executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, an advocacy group that helped organize the program.

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