Developer's role in forest measure draws criticism Some say Hill has pressured county officials

November 12, 1992|By Kerry O'Rourke and Greg Tasker | Kerry O'Rourke and Greg Tasker,Staff Writers

Local efforts to preserve Carroll's forests may be in jeopardy because developers -- particularly one -- have pressured the county commissioners, some involved in the efforts contend.

Today the commissioners are expected to decide whether to support a forest conservation law drafted by a county citizens group or one written by the state.

Developers -- the most visible being Carroll's largest, Martin K.P. Hill of Manchester -- support the state law, which they say is less stringent than Carroll's and would be less costly to follow.

Some supporters of the county law say Mr. Hill has impeded the process in looking out for his own interest.

Mr. Hill, who has built about 1,800 Carroll homes in the past 21 years, has at least two developments, in Eldersburg and Hampstead, that county officials said could be affected by forest conservation.

Mr. Hill, however, said both have received preliminary approval and would not be affected by the law.

"I don't have a personal ax to grind," he said.

His building company, Masonry Contractors Inc., has sales of $29 million a year, he said yesterday. He also builds homes in Frederick and Howard counties and Pennsylvania.

"Marty Hill is not an ogre. He's not a venal person. But Marty Hill is a capitalist. Marty Hill is in the business of making every buck he can make," Westminster Mayor W. Benjamin Brown said.

"It's not right to give any special interest greater access than is given to the general public. That's what's going on at the County Office Building.

"You may as well have an office with Marty Hill's name on it in the county," the mayor said.

At stake for Mr. Hill and other developers is how they go about clearing land for development.

Last week, Commissioner President Donald I. Dell appeared to be leaning toward supporting the state law when he expressed concerns about the proposed county law at a staff meeting.

Local governments are required to either adopt the state plan or develop one of their own that is at least as stringent as the state's.

This week, Mr. Dell said the consensus of public opinion is that the county plan is better, but he is undecided about which plan he will support. Commissioner Julia W. Gouge said she is undecided, and Commissioner Elmer C. Lippy said he "emphatically" supports the county law.

During the past year and a half, Mr. Hill or his staff have voiced opinions to the commissioners in letters and at public hearings, work sessions and at staff meetings.

Last spring, as the commissioners were ready to appoint a homebuilder to the committee, Mr. Brown argued against special-interest representation. The proper time for special-interest groups to comment was at public hearings, he said.

Still, the commissioners named Thomas M. Ballentine, assistant director for government affairs at the Home Builders Association of Maryland, to the committee after county staffer Neil Ridgely quit the committee in protest on March 18.

Mr. Ridgely, Carroll's program manager for landscaping and forest conservation, said Mr. Hill had interfered in the process.

On March 9, Mr. Hill wrote a letter to Mr. Lippy accusing county staff members of "using omissions, half truths and outright falsehoods" to oppose the state ordinance.

Mr. Ridgely said yesterday that the homebuilders have had too much input: "Their harangue can be burdensome."

Frank Grabowski, a Westminster engineer who chaired the committee, said Mr. Hill should not have been allowed to comment after the public record on the ordinance was closed in October.

"He has spoken at meetings where he should have been there to witness, not to partake," Mr. Grabowski said. "Those meetings are open -- I think not for public participation but for public witness."

Mr. Hill and his assistant James Piet regularly attended meetings with commissioners and their staff members on the proposed law. Mr. Hill sometimes sat at the work table with the commissioners and made comments. The developer often was the only person at the meetings who was not a county staff member or news reporter.

Mr. Hill said yesterday he made comments only when asked. It's the commissioners' decision to allow comments from the public at staff meetings, he said.

"I am doing it as a representative of the industry," he added.

The president of the Carroll County Chapter of the Home Builders Association of Maryland agreed.

"Marty is representing builders, all builders," said Jeffrey Powers, a Westminster builder. "The issues he raised have been beneficial to all concerned. A lot of our input was taken to heart."

Teresa Bamberger, Mount Airy town planner and a member of the committee, said she and other town representatives who support the local law haven't been able to attend staff meetings.

"I'm frustrated that we don't have the time," she said. "If there's an imbalance in representation in interested parties -- that's why. It's not for lack of interest on our part."

Mrs. Bamberger and others argue that developers don't have the best interests of the public at heart.

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