The applause last night for neighbors speaking against the proposed research park at the University of Maryland Baltimore County was louder than for those who spoke for it.
Most of the politicians listening to the arguments and applause said they were still making up their minds.
UMBC officials say that the plan for the park on 95 acres at the southern end of the campus would provide 2,000 jobs and raise as much as $2 million a year in property taxes within the next two decades.
"We are a research university," said UMBC President Michael Hooker, and the campus must grow to meet the demands of the state's economy.
But neighborhood organizations in the southwest county say the park will bring more traffic, higher taxes and hazardous chemicals. The facility "will lower the quality of life and eradicate the cultural heritage of many of Baltimore County's oldest and most stable communities," said Kathy Valderas, who is leading the opposition for the Southwest Coalition, a group that includes several neighborhood associations in the area.
Although UMBC has yet to approach the county for approval, the plan already has become enough of a controversy to draw more than 250 people last night to an information meeting about it at Our Lady of Victory School in Catonsville.
UMBC proposes to develop the park as a way to expand existing partnerships and create new ones with high-technology companies that would allow faculty and graduate students to conduct research and development projects. Westinghouse Corp., the state's largest private employer, has expressed interest in building a robotics lab as the lead tenant at the park.
If such an agreement is signed, UMBC officials said, the university would then apply, possibly as early as this summer, for county approvals. UMBC would borrow money from the Maryland Industrial Redevelopment Fund to help build the park's $4.8 million infrastructure -- roads, water and sewer lines. UMBC would repay the loans with revenue from leases on the land where corporate tenants would build their own research buildings.
Speakers for the Southwest Coalition said they didn't oppose the idea, but just wanted to change the location from their neighborhood to some other site that already is an industrial park.
And they said that UMBC had proven itself untrustworthy in dealing with soil erosion and other environmental problems at the campus. If a research lab full of hazardous chemicals caught fire, said William Getz, who lives a mile away on Waveland Road, "in six minutes a 10-mph wind could have it over my house. I'm concerned."
Hooker said that restrictive covenants would prevent the tenants from stockpiling "anything more toxic than what is in your garage or my garage."
He and other UMBC administrators said the park would be a part of the solution to America's lagging competition with Japan and other industrialized nations for control of manufacturing technology and markets. Hooker said that if the university had to drop the research park, it would have to expand in some other way, probably as a teachers college. That would mean doubling the student population to 20,000, he said, which would create far worse traffic than the research park.
Among the politicians present last night, only County Councilwoman Berchie Manley, R-1st, took a stand, which was against the research park. Others, such as Del. Louis Morsberger, D-Balto. Co., said that while they were deciding the issue, they resented threats from citizens to vote them out of office on the basis of their decision.