Elinor Santor always knew the 203 acres next to her house at the endof Elko Drive, in the Glenmar section of Ellicott City, would be developed someday.
But she assumed it would be developed gently, especially after the county passed a steep slope bill three years ago that prohibited developers from building within 75 feet of a stream bed.
Close by her house, a stream ran along a hedgerow, through a dense section of 50-foot-high trees -- oaks, poplars, sycamores and maples -- that had become the habitat for many small animals and birds.
Although land was being cleared on the other side of the trees, Santor was not worried. She and other Glenmar property owners thought Bill 66 -- the environmental protection package passed by the County Council Nov. 7, 1988 -- would protect the trees and maintain a buffer between Glenmar and the 376 homes being built in the new Montgomery Meadows subdivision.
Last week, Santor suffered a homeowner's worst nightmare. The trees and stream adjoining her property vanished withinfive hours, crushed and covered over by bulldozers.
It seems Bill66 has a whopping loophole. Approximately 5,000 acres along the Patapsco corridor from Ellicott City to Elkridge are not covered because a preliminary site plan was filed before the bill was passed.
Montgomery Meadows on Waterloo Road, advertised as "luxury" single-familyhomes priced "from the low 200s," was exempt. N.V. Homes began marketing in February and residents started moving in two months later.
The developer appears to be clearing the land, then planting very young trees on bare lots where homes are under construction. A receptionist answering phones at N.V. Homes' Rockville office said her bossestold her to say they had no comment.
Santor, however, had plenty.While she can't bring back the trees, she says, she can sound a warning to other homeowners who may share the same fate.
Pushing back tears Friday as she showed council chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, what the bulldozers had done, she said, "I never dreamed the trees would be taken out and the stream removed. I was begging the county, 'Please give us a couple of days!' "
As she was talking, a county inspector walked up at Gray's request and joined the conversation. "This was not a stream," he said, but "a swale in a drainage easement for awhole new storm piping system."
Bill 66 wouldn't have covered theproperty regardless, he said, because "the county does not want trees in their easements."
"You're telling me the county would gladly see the trees come down?" Santor asked.
"Yes sir," the inspector replied. "It's a maintenance problem."
County planning director Joseph W. Rutter Jr., who visited the site for three hours Saturday, said his department had asked the developer to move the development's drainage pipes away from the trees and stream, but N.V. Homes refused.
He said the department also asked that another clump of trees and the remainder of the stream -- "It was running water, you don't have to be an Einstein to see that it was a stream," Rutter said -- be preserved.
Again, the developer is free to refuse. Rutter says N.V. Homes has not responded to his latest request.
"Our regulations arefairly strict for the most part," Rutter said. But "if a project meets all the requirements -- and this one did -- we have no authority not to approve it.
"To interject what I believe should be the law is not my style," Rutter said. "It is not fair to the landowners, the development community or to the residents of the county in general. Ican't fight every single development plan that comes in here and still be the development director. I shouldn't be substituting my judgment for that of the legislature."
Lawmakers, however, are scurryingto see what can be done to properties not covered by Bill 66. Gray said he expects the council to enact a tree ordinance and "make it at some point applicable" to unprotected areas.
Council member DarrelDrown, R-2nd, while saying he feels it is "unconscionable for developers to take the area of least resistance," is concerned that councilattempts to legislate morality may be worse.
In order to curb thepractices of "a couple of people who don't do a competent job," the county may develop legislation "so complex and complicated that it would become a lawyers' employment bill," Drown said. "The only people people who would understand it are the people who would use it on a daily basis."
County Executive Charles I. Ecker, concerned that thecounty was not able to respond to the Glenmar community, said he is considering sending the council legislation that would apply Bill 66 to unprotected land if it is not developed within a given number of years.
Rutter, meanwhile, suggests communities exercise vigilance and friendly persuasion.
"We have all the information here (regarding every subdivision in the county) and are more than happy to meet with community groups," he said. "If afterward, they invite developersto their community associations, 99 percent will come. The vast majority will work with you. If not, at least you know what your fate is."