Friday, November 07, 2008

In the Shadow of Sugar Loaf

By Sharon Dooley.

The fiddlers were a-fiddlin’, the banjos were a-playin’ and the grapes were being stomped on a beautiful country day. The crowds were sippin’ and clappin’ and enjoying the fresh country air. Where in the world were these events happening: California wine country? Nope, it was right here at the upcounty Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard along Comus Road in Montgomery County, which stands literally, in the shadow of our own Sugarloaf Mountain.

On this recent weekend, the vineyard held its annual grape stomp, wine tasting event and vintage wine sales. At the same event, in a special ceremony, Montgomery County’s Countryside Alliance awarded its’ annual Royce Hanson Award to Peg Coleman. Peg is a well-known author and educator, a preservationist and keeper of the countryside integrity, and a guardian of the special natural resources that are the mainstay of the upcounty agricultural reserve. She is a quiet farm oriented person who effectively spreads her messages about this special portion of Montgomery County. Her award was well deserved and cheerfully applauded by the hundreds of attendees, which also included some elected officials.

Royce Hanson, Planning Board Chair, presented the award – for which he had been the first recipient. He was noted to have been the “Father of the Agricultural Reserve” more than 25 years ago, when this area was first set aside, then marking about 93,000 acres of parkland and farmlands and several towns and villages. The original protected area encompassed about one-third of the entire land in Montgomery County. In his remarks he described how this section sets the county apart, even from aloft, as a spot where the prominence of lights in a continuous march down the East Coast is dimmed. He mentioned the importance of ensuring protections for this fragile area, still being threatened with development. He noted how the trees clean the air for all in the county. Sand Mounds and their misuse were also mentioned as a tool that could be used to further fracture the separate peace of this upcounty area of refuge. This topic is yet to be clearly defined by the County Council and this lack of resolution hangs like a sword over the Reserve. There are many who fear that the Ag Reserve will die the death of a thousand cuts as the acreage around the periphery is continually challenged with special requests to add another building or two or more. Limiting the numbers of housing roofs in the Reserve as well as discouraging fragmentation of agricultural lands are both vital concerns in the area. Other discussions have focused on equity for farmer property owners in the form of selling rights for development instead elsewhere in the county in exchange for not developing lands in the Reserve. In an era of fewer county and developer funds, will these options be still in play?

This is a special set-aside where the air is clear and the clamor of the crowded highways is missing. When one looks to the sky one sees the hawk and eagle in flight, not the shadow of high rises. These are the lonely roads where you may end up behind a thresher as you drive along, amid the fields of corn, hay, or soybeans and pass by painted fences corralling grazing horses and nearby stables. On this early autumn day, in the nearby forests, the leaves were starting to change; their colorful array twinkled in the sunshine. One must wonder if this area will still remain a treasured place where we might be able to celebrate the 100th or even the 50th anniversary of its’ special protections.

Sharon Dooley hopes that those of you in the down county who have never explored the beauty of these upcounty areas - will take that country drive –someday soon – while we are still protecting the land here.