Why do Baltimore County officials congratulate themselves on protecting our watersheds? This is the tenth year the county has gone to extraordinary lengths to benefit an oil company that has roughly 100,000 gallons of petroleum products stored underground beside the metropolitan water supply.
The story begins in 1980, during the county's quadrennial rezoning. At that time, council members had given themselves the right to slip in last-minute zoning changes without telling anyone -- not even the planning department. Former Third District Councilman James T. Smith Jr. used this loophole to rezone the Clark Oil Company land, on Merryman's Mill Road, from ''watershed protection'' to ''industrial.''
The zoning change not only enabled the company to legalize extensive illegal development, but it also increased the value of the property, permitted more expansion and opened the door for other types of industry to locate in an environmentally sensitive area.
In 1984, the next rezoning period, a coalition of five community and seven environmental organizations filed a request to restore ''watershed protection'' to the oil company's property. The request was supported for 18 months through four public hearings without a single word of opposition.
Nevertheless, just two hours before the council voted, Mr. Smith unveiled another loophole. He would return ''watershed protection'' to part of the land and leave ''industrial'' zoning on the rest. He gave himself much credit for this ''compromise,'' but it transpired that the ''watershed protection'' part was in a ravine, while ''industrial'' zoning remained on all level land where development could continue. The council approved his revision, even though it violated both the word and spirit of a new reservoir-protection agreement with Baltimore city.
By the next rezoning, 1988, the oil company had become an oil depot with trucks from other firms refueling at its pumps. The increase in transfers of oil between underground tanks and trucks also increased the danger of an oil spill. Once again, the coalition requested the return of ''watershed protection'' zoning. The change would not put the company out of business, for it could continue to operate as a non-conforming use, but it would curb expansion of the business or sale of the property to another industrial owner, and it would prohibit rebuilding if there were a fire or other disaster.
Mr. Smith, meanwhile, had become a circuit court judge; C. A. ''Dutch'' Ruppersberger replaced him on the council. Mr. Ruppersberger soon made it clear that he, too, would give priority to protecting the oil company. He told some people that he would change the zoning, others that he would not, and still others that he had not decided (sometimes all on the same day), thus keeping everyone off balance.
Despite opposition by community and environmental groups, as well as Baltimore city, the Regional Planning Council and the county's own Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management, Mr. Ruppersberger voted in favor of the oil company. He argued that zoning was unimportant; only relocation of the company could safeguard the water supply and he was committed to doing just that.
A year later, when nothing had been done, Mr. Ruppersberger said that a county administrative officer, Frank Robey, ''has taken the matter out of my hands.'' Mr. Robey, in turn, got rid of the project by lumping it in with all the other problems that the county would like the state to solve.
That seemed to kill the issue, but it revived in the county's new Master Plan. If this ''blueprint for the future'' were to endorse an industrial site on the very banks of a reservoir, how was the county to maintain credibility for its watershed policy? The Planning Board recommended that ''watershed protection'' zoning be returned to the oil-company property.
That decision placed the council in a dilemma: Taking away lucrative zoning from a politically well-connected company was unthinkable, especially so close to an election. On the other hand, a vote against ''watershed protection'' was not without risk.
Councilman Ruppersberger to the rescue! He got the council off the hook by introducing a vaguely worded amendment to the Master Plan that called for identifying ''inappropriate'' zoning in rural areas. (Never mind that that is exactly what the Master Plan already had done.) Thus a vote on the Planning Board's recommendation could be shelved and ''industrial'' zoning remained firmly in place.
The water supply continues to be threatened by an oil operation. County officials continue to praise their watershed policy. The ''green scam'' is ten years old and going strong.
Mrs. Crook lives in the Loch Raven area.