Helicopter lands in zoning dispute in rural Balto. Co. Noise irks residents as Rite Aid chairman shuttles to Pa. job

October 14, 1997|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

In Green Spring Valley, where the wrong style of fence can make wealthy neighbors hopping mad, a resident's noisy helicopter has ruffled more than the brittle autumn cornstalks.

The top-of-the-line copter is the focus of a fierce zoning dispute in the scenic valley, where Rite Aid Corp. Chairman Martin Grass uses it to shuttle between his $2 million estate and the company's Harrisburg, Pa., headquarters.

Baltimore County zoning inspectors have slapped Grass with citations that carry $800 in fines for using the highly restricted agricultural area as a helipad -- and they vow to keep doing so.

And County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger is trying to broker a compromise that will placate angry residents while keeping out the welcome mat for Grass, head of the nation's third-largest drugstore chain.

So far, it hasn't worked.

Neighbors continue to document the flights and report them to the county zoning inspection office; they say Grass' helicopter took off three times this past weekend and once yesterday.

They say the roar is so disturbing that chickens have stopped laying eggs at a small farm adjacent to the landing site.

"It's simple: You can't be landing a helicopter anyplace you want just because you're rich," said Harold Burns, an attorney who lives a mile from the landing site on Helmore Farms at Greenspring Valley and Falls roads. "And he's getting special treatment because he's rich."

"This is flagrant -- it is unbelieveable," said Deirdre Smith, a neighbor whose husband rode in the leased copter and was told by Grass that it was worth $3.5 million. "It's a total violation and disregard for the law. On one hand, the county is fining him and the other hand is helping him. He's working every angle."

Grass and his attorneys, Isaac Newberger and Richard Rubin, didnot return phone calls over the past several days seeking comment. Grass also did not respond to a letter left at his home during the weekend.

But the conflict has grown so heated that Ruppersberger and Economic Development Director Robert Hannon have tried to help Grass find a legal helipad, the executive said.

One attempt by Ruppersberger to reroute Grass to a county-owned helipad at the police station in Reisterstown was rejected because it could take up space needed for a police aircraft, said police spokesman Bill Toohey.

Ruppersberger said he is trying to act as mediator because he relishes that role as the county's top politician. "We're in the service business," said Ruppersberger, who refused to comment specifically on Grass' zoning dispute. "We're working to try to find him an alternative site. We try to work through issues and try to resolve disputes. He's a constituent."

Robert J. Barrett, Ruppersberger's special assistant, said the administration is solidly opposed to anyone landing a helicopter in a residential area.

But he, Hannon and Ruppersberger aide Michael H. Davis also say officials know high-powered executives often commute via helicopter. To attract businesses and jobs, the county needs to identify places where helipads may be built, they say.

Though Rite Aid is based in Harrisburg, the chain has opened a huge data processing operation in Hunt Valley and a distribution center in Harford County. Grass moved to Lutherville three years ago in part because of better educational and cultural opportunities for his family.

"He's being treated like anybody else that violates the zoning laws," Davis said. "But if you want to get executives who control lots of jobs for the county, you have to try to help them out. It would be pretty bad if we lost jobs because we didn't help the guy."

For instance, Davis added, a member of the family that owns WBFF-TV and who lives in Green Spring Valley also has said he would like to commute via helicopter.

Last week, Grass abandoned the landing site near his home at Greenspring Avenue and Hillside Road and landed at Helmore Farms, a nationally recognized thoroughbred breeding farm at 901 Greenspring Valley Road.

That farm has a small, overgrown airstrip, but it is covered by the same highly restrictive, preservationist-minded RC-2 zoning as the other site. That means Grass and Helmore Farm owner Edgar Lucas face the same fine of $200 per landing or take off, said Director of Permits and Development Management Arnold Jablon.

"I ain't going easy on him," Jablon said of Grass.

Such disputes are not new to rural county areas. In 1980, demolition contractor Gerald W. "Buzz" Berg won a five-year battle to land a helicopter in the back yard of his Green Spring Valley home.

Another attempt by a valley resident to land a helicopter in RC-2 zoning was made in 1989, but former Deputy Zoning Commissioner Ann M. Nastarowicz refused to issue a special exception for the copter landing and the issue died.

County zoning files show Grass applied for a similar special zoning exception this summer, but a Sept. 10 hearing was postponed as Grass' attorney Rubin tried to locate an alternate site.

After that, the complaints started rolling in. Lavette Bannerman, the county zoning inspector, visited the Grass residence in late August to investigate.

"I did speak with Mrs. Grass, who was a pretty hard read," Bannerman said. "When I asked if they owned a helicopter, she said she had to ask her husband. I asked the husband, 'Are you landing a helicopter?' And he told me no. I asked about the NTC [Sept. 10] hearing, and he all of a sudden remembered he did have a helicopter."

Bannerman continues to issue citations that each carry a $200 fine. Grass does not need to pay the fine pending a hearing, scheduled for Nov. 12.

The zoning inspector said her experience with Grass "ticked me off. It was insulting and condescending."

"However, he needs to understand that he may be a very important man, but he still has to abide by the law. And there's no way around that."

Pub Date: 10/14/97

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