Residents fight to save historic area Oliver Beach lobby has pricked up ears

October 29, 1991|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

Ellen Jackson thought she had sufficient weapons to fight the battle of Oliver Beach.

She joined neighbors to gather petitions, take photographs, collect historical documents and lobby county officials to fight the proposed construction of 14 houses on a four-acre tract at the center of their community.

But 18 months later, Mrs. Jackson says the community's efforts accomplished little and that Oliver Beach, a community of modest homes along the Gunpowder River, has come away from the battle wounded.

"The rights of the developer come before the rights of the people," she said last week.

The Emerald Development Corp. still plans to build on a tract surrounding the 171-year-old house once owned by Robert Oliver, an 18th-century importer, investor and gentleman farmer.

Mrs. Jackson said she has learned that if a property owner has the right zoning for land, there is nothing a community can do to stop or impede its development.

"You have to give people the idea that what they say is going to carry some weight. That didn't happen here," she said.

County officials say that may be changing.

Baltimore County is revamping the way it approves proposals for residential, commercial and industrial development. One of the main goals of the new rules is to give communities more say in what is built in their neighborhoods.

The proposed regulations will be the subject of a public hearing Nov. 26 before the County Council, which will rule on any changes. The regulations will then be the subject of a Dec. 10 council work session. A vote is expected on Dec. 16, said Council Chairman Douglas B. Riley, R-4th.

Attorneys for developers say the current process allows sufficient community input, particularly when communities are willing to negotiate with developers.

"If there are legitimate problems, they're addressed. But just because a community doesn't want a development and says it will mean traffic problems, that doesn't mean there's a real traffic problem," said Michael Marino, the attorney for Emerald. "There has to be meaningful dialogue. You can't have a community say 'absolutely no development here' and expect a developer to agree to that."

As a first step in the County Review Group process, which has been used for 10 years, a public meeting is held before the review group, which is made up of one official each from the county's planning and public works departments.

The two officials review comments from county environmental, health, planning, fire and licensing officials. But community concerns about traffic, water quality, school capacity and open spaces are heard only as advisory comments.

Communities "are powerless in a way, because they have no standing with the CRG," said Andrea J. Van Arsdale, a county planner who has studied the process. "The CRG is only a public meeting so they can see the approval process."

But under the process being considered, developers would have to meet with the community to discuss their plans, then make their case before an administrative law judge.

In approving a plan, the judge may hear testimony from community residents and any experts they hire on the effects of the proposal with regard to flooding, traffic and water quality. The judge may then impose restrictions or conditions on the development that may be deemed a necessity "for the protection of surrounding and neighboring properties," according to the proposed regulations.

The judge also would be able to reduce the number of units in a residential development by 20 percent, or reduce the floor space in a commercial development by 20 percent, Ms. Van Arsdale said.

Developers have tentatively agreed to support the changes because they offer the promise of a speedier approval process by avoiding the delays that occur when community groups appeal County Review Group approvals to the county Board of Appeals, a legal maneuver that can tie up development plans for several months.

But for residents of Oliver Beach, the changes may come too late because even if the council approves the new regulations, it will not prevent construction of developments approved under existing codes.

The development is expected to win approval from county officials when it comes up for a hearing Nov. 7 before the County Review Group, an initial step in the approval process.

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