Appeals court to decide future of trucking firm Residential neighbors long have complained of dust, noise, traffic

Case tests Balto. Co. law

Umerley Trucking has tried to follow all rules, lawyer says

February 05, 1996|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

A state appeals court is to consider today whether a large trucking company can stay in a residential neighborhood in White Marsh -- the latest round in a long-running dispute over noise, dust and traffic safety.

The court hearing comes nearly two decades after Baltimore County lawmakers voted to steer trucking companies from residential areas. To residents of the eastern Baltimore County subdivision of Nottingham, the hearing is the most blatant example of what they describe as Leo J. Umerley Sr.'s tendency to flout the law.

In recent years, Mr. Umerley has been charged with ignoring the need for grading permits, and his company has been accused of defying an order to improve its safety standards. He has been taken to court, and he has seen his company's interstate operations temporarily shut down.

Today's hearing could shape the future of Umerley Trucking Service, life in the Nottingham subdivision and enforcement of the county's trucking facilities law -- a case that may turn on Mr. Umerley's inattention to government regulations.

Mr. Umerley, it seems, missed a chance in 1976 to register his company with the county; registration allowed existing companies to remain in residential neighborhoods under a new law.

Now, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals is being asked to decide whether he should be granted zoning variances to allow him to stay in business on Philadelphia Road.

The county zoning commissioner who first reviewed the case found Mr. Umerley's oversight inexplicable.

"It is indeed unfortunate that Mr. Umerley did not take advantage of this legislation," wrote the commissioner, Lawrence E. Schmidt, who turned down the request for variances. The variances were approved by the county Board of Appeals, but denied once more by a circuit judge, leading to the appeals court case.

Mr. Umerley, 74, did not return telephone calls last week requesting comment. In hearings, he and his lawyers have said he did not know of the law or the registration requirement.

Some neighbors wonder. They say Mr. Umerley's business causes noise and dust, along with traffic and storm water problems.

"The image that is presented is of a renegade, of someone who does things his own way without regard for other people or the law itself," said Marie Simoes, president of the Nottingham Improvement Association.

Robert L. Hanley Jr., a lawyer representing Mr. Umerley in the appeals court case, said: "Mr. Umerley has maintained his business for 38 years, and attempts to abide by all the applicable regulations in his business."

Mr. Umerley's lawyers have argued that the variances are allowable for industrially zoned land in a transportation corridor served not only by trucks but by planes, trains and automobiles.

In those hearings, Mr. Umerley said he went into business in 1946 as a building contractor, with two dump trucks and a backhoe. By 1958, when he moved to Philadelphia Road -- midway between the Baltimore Beltway and White Marsh Boulevard -- he owned about 25 pieces of equipment.

At that time, Nottingham Village, a subdivision of about 80 homes on half-acre and acre lots, was still being developed. Residents say the Umerley business remained relatively unobtrusive until it was expanded in the 1980s.

The company has 11 trucks, 25 tractors and 59 trailers, according to an industry publication. Mr. Umerley's trucks haul road salt to storage sites for state and county highway crews and carry construction material, such as sand, gravel and concrete block.

In September, Federal Highway Administration officials ordered the company to cease interstate trucking operations for four days after an investigation showed "no evidence" that it had complied with an order to eliminate falsification of drivers' logs. Those logs are intended to keep fatigued drivers off the roads. The company, named in five enforcement actions since 1990, was fined $75,000.

The company also was cited by the state for failing to report a 1992 diesel fuel spill on the property. Mr. Umerley hired a company to clean the spill, which spread into a nearby stream.

In 1982, Mr. Umerley obtained a building permit to expand his office and garage, identifying his business as a construction equipment storage yard. Still, it was not until years later that the county began to receive complaints.

Perhaps no one has complained more loudly than Gary Hoffman, who for a decade operated an engineering firm next door.

In 1988, Mr. Hoffman began writing to county officials, accusing Mr. Umerley of grading land at his company without a permit, and complaining of storm water runoff from the property. Other neighbors complained, too.

In 1992, the county filed criminal charges against Mr. Umerley, accusing him of grading without a permit. The case later was placed on the inactive docket, under the condition that he meet with county officials to resolve the issues.

Mr. Umerley's plans for an underground storm water management system have been approved, but he has not obtained a permit to build it, county records show.

Mr. Hoffman criticized county officials for not forcing Mr. Umerley to install the system.

"We have had several issues with Mr. Umerley, and I can understand Mr. Hoffman's concern," said Thomas L. Vidmar, chief of the county's Bureau of Engineering Services.

He said officials are waiting for the appellate court's decision before acting.

Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for today, and a ruling is expected next month.

Peter Max Zimmerman, people's counsel for Baltimore County, said the case will test the 1976 county law banning trucking companies within 300 feet of houses.

"If the Board of Appeals is upheld, it is essentially saying you can locate these things right across the street from residential areas," Mr. Zimmerman said.

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