The Lansdowne Volunteer Fire Company will have a ne home.
Baltimore County Zoning Commissioner Lawrence E. Schmidt recently granted the 90-year-old fire company a special exception to build a firehouse and assembly hall on 3.5 acres of Hollins Ferry Park. He ruled that the company's plans did not harm the community.
But the issue of using the park land, tucked in a corner between the Beltway and the Harbor Tunnel Thruway, has created some controversy. Two area civic associations and some neighbors side with the fire company, one association has decided not to take a position, and some neighbors are concerned about the loss of open space.
"We didn't want to get caught in the middle," said Theresa Lowrey, president of the Greater Bloomfield, Lansdowne, Riverview Association.
The issue was made even more sensitive by the involvement of a volunteer fire company, traditionally viewed as a pillar in the community,
"It's not an easy thing to oppose a volunteer fire company," said Hal Benson, who lives across the street from the lot. "I'm not comfortable in opposing the fire company myself."
Mr. Benson, who declined to comment on the zoning commissioner's decision "until after I read his written opinion," believes the county improperly turned zoned residential land over to the volunteer fire company. The 3.5-acre field is part of the 6.7-acre Hollins Ferry Park.
J. Donald Mooney, chief emeritus of the fire company, said he was pleased with the decision. "We're very happy about it," he said.
The company will start raising money for a new 400-seat assembly hall and a fire station early this year. The buildings will replace the company's cramped quarters a mile away on Laverne Avenue. Construction, which should cost about $2 million, won't begin for two years, said Mr. Mooney.
Mr. Mooney, chairman of the fire company's building committee, said the only other usable land would have cost more than $3 million. The company avoided that expense by working out a 99-year lease with the county about two years ago. The company will pay the county $1 a year for the Hollins Ferry site.
In making his decision, Mr. Schmidt did not tackle Mr. Benson's major point: how the county took the land for the fire company's use. He said that point was outside his jurisdiction. But many in the community surrounding the site still question the process that put the land under the fire company's control.
The park, bought in August 1977 with $212,610 in state Program Open Space funds, wasn't supposed to be developed. And, the land could only be exchanged for another parcel of comparable or greater size, use and value. In 1987, the county offered the proposed Rockdale school site in exchange. State officials rejected the offer.
Dr. Torrey C. Brown, state natural resources secretary, and Constance Lieder, then-state planning secretary, said the Rockdale site was more than 10 miles from the community and thus did not serve the neighborhood. They also noted that the Rockdale property already was used for open space and recreation. State regulations require land offered in exchange be in addition to existing open space or park land.
Eventually, the county and the state settled on a 3.5-acre site in the 2800 block of Frederick Road near Oella and the Howard County line, almost eight miles from Hollins Ferry Park.
In a June 1988 letter to Robert R. Staab, then-county recreation and parks director, Ms. Lieder acknowledged that the land exchange met the technical requirements. However, she criticized the county for its "continued efforts to draw on Program Open Space land for purposes other than parks and open space."
Mr. Benson and other community residents believe political pressure was put on the state to exchange the park property for land nearly eight miles away. Documents from the state planning and natural resources department show the fire company has been supported throughout the process by most of the local former and present elected officials.
Bernie Wentker, central regional administrator for Program Open Space, said that when the state rejects a land use request like the Hollins Ferry Park site, occasionally pressure is brought "and we receive a letter telling us to approve it." He insists that did not happen in this case. The exchange was approved because it added park land to the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and met all other requirements, he said.
"We prefer that the land exchanged be within the same community that is losing open space, but there is no hard and fast rule to that effect," he said. "In this case, it didn't directly benefit the residents of Lansdowne but at least it benefited the citizens of Baltimore County."
The fire company hopes it will be able to use its larger hall to raise money to buy an ambulance, said Mr. Mooney. Medic runs make up about 40 percent of the 600 to 800 calls the fire company answers each year, he said.