Hayden's Smoldering Priorities

February 02, 1992

One year after a fire started at a large stump dump in Baltimore County, a huge pile of wood -- an underground area 300 feet long, 1,000 feet wide and 125 feet deep -- is still smoldering. When the temperature drops, or the wind blows, the musty smell of smoke hangs over backyards in the Granite area and seeps onto front porches. The odious presence of the stump dump fire is pervasive.

For years there has been open animosity between the Greater Patapsco Community and James Jett -- owner of a Christmas tree business that neighbors say is a thinly veiled dump. They hated the trucks that rolled in carrying stumps to be ground up for mulch for the Christmas trees. They detested the commotion and what they perceived as a violation of the rural-agricultural zoning category in which the stump dump operated.

The county has made a number of attempts to take action, but officials could never get the courts to rule that Mr. Jett's business was illegal. So the stump dump continued to operate. Until ignition day -- Feb. 2, 1991.

There now are pending lawsuits and appeals that may determine if the stump dump is indeed compatible with RC-2 zoning and whether Mr. Jett should get the permit he seeks to bring in and grind and burn stumps. All these issues are important but, with the fire still burning, there is a more basic question: Does local government have a responsibility to maintain certain services for its citizens -- for example, to put out fires once they start?

County Executive Roger Hayden apparently thinks not. He has abandoned efforts to quell the fire because it would cost too much. But if the county maintains this particular fire is not important enough to put out, or is too expensive to fight, it has carved out a dangerous new role. Could the county decide, for example, not to fund a police force in Woodlawn because there isn't enough money to provide protection for every community? Could it instruct firefighters to use only 200 gallons of water on a house fire -- and after that let the residence smolder?

The Hayden administration's marriage to cost-cutting should not be used as a mandate for selective government services. The county executive's refusal to honor the commitment to provide basic protection to the people of the Greater Patapsco Community is an abdication of government responsibility. It could be an ominous precedent.

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