Activists winning more fights with developers

July 03, 1995|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Sun Staff Writer

In the past year, residents of Baltimore's suburban counties have rallied to defeat a millionaire who wanted to build a football stadium in Laurel, a developer who planned to build a motor speedway in Havre de Grace, and the powerful Wal-Mart chain that was looking to open a store on Reisterstown Road.

Aided by sympathetic politicians and new laws governing development, citizens have more power than ever before to channel, modify and, in some cases, defeat development.

Some call these activists "NIMBYs" -- An acronym from the phrase "not in my back yard" -- and say their opposition to development is threatening the region's economic vitality.

"They are choking the golden goose," said lawyer G. Scott Barhight, who has represented numerous developers in fights against residents.

But community activists see themselves as underdogs fighting to protect their quality of life against wealthy and powerful developers in a system stacked against them.

"We're the Indians going out with bows and arrows to fight off tanks," said Richard W. McQuaid, president of the North County Coalition, which has fought development in northern Baltimore County.

County officials, meanwhile, walk a precarious line between supporting the economic development that is needed to help pay for public services and ensuring that new growth doesn't contribute to urban sprawl.

Baltimore County Economic Development Director Robert L. Hannon laid out the quandary: "When you talk about creating overall job opportunities, people agree with that. When you talk about increasing traffic, their self-interest takes over."

Government officials also have their own self-interest to look after -- the dilemma of pleasing developers who supply campaign contributions and serving the residents who supply the votes.

Over the years, communities have opposed practically every ma-jor commercial development project from Eastpoint Mall to Westview Shopping Center. But 30 years ago, their opposition went largely unheeded. Those were the days when the Baltimore County Council was changing the zoning on properties to benefit campaign contributors, and the county executives in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties were caught taking kickbacks from architects and engineers.

"If there was any development, the community had absolutely no input," said J. Carroll Holzer, a Baltimore County lawyer who for years has represented citizen groups against development.

Today, the laws give communities more say in development projects. In 1992, Baltimore County became the first jurisdiction in the area to require developers to meet with residents before submitting development plans for county approval. Last year, Harford County also passed a law requiring citizen input in the initial stages of a project and creating citizen counsels to review and help plan development.

Last fall, voters in Howard County overwhelmingly voted to amend the county charter to require that changes in the comprehensive zoning plan be treated as legislation, which can either be vetoed by the county executive or repealed by public referendum.

"I think the pendulum has swung way to the side of the community," said Towson developer James F. Knott. "There are more votes with the community. I'm one vote. They have a lot of power, and it's hard to beat that."

But citizen groups point out that just because they have more chance to comment doesn't necessarily mean they have more power. In Baltimore County, the new development process is faster than the old one and limits the grounds upon which citizens can appeal decisions by the zoning hearing officers.

And often developments can avoid the community input meetings altogether. Baltimore County issued 12,917 building permits in 1994, but held only 59 community input meetings.

"Minor" projects and those approved under the old development process are exempt. Even such large projects as the Time Warner Inc. distribution center in White Marsh and the Health Care Financing Administration building in Woodlawn were not subjected to community scrutiny.

In Anne Arundel, Carroll and areas of Howard County outside Columbia, the laws are even less favorable to residents. There, citizens are given practically no chance to comment publicly on a project until after it has been approved, provided that the proposed development complies with zoning guidelines. Citizens can appeal, but by then construction may have started.

"The whole process is a developer's dream," Dr. McQuaid said. "The community has to spend large sums of money in order to fight it, and practically every time you lose."

Residents have lost their fights against a Wal-Mart in Howard County and a United Parcel Service distribution center in Baltimore County, but there also have been victories against seemingly insurmountable odds.

In Anne Arundel, residents fought both money and politics to defeat Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke's plan to build a 78,600-seat football stadium in Laurel.

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