Hearing called off on helicopter landings Neighbors again lose chance to air dissent

January 08, 1998|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

For residents fighting the battle of the helicopter in exclusive Green Spring Valley, yesterday's lesson was straight from the Yogi Berra book of life: deja vu all over again.

For the second time since November, neighbors who had hoped to testify about the noise from Rite Aid Corp. Chairman Martin L. Grass' continued chopper landings on restricted farmland were denied the opportunity, leaving them infuriated.

Yesterday's hearing -- involving fines totaling $2,400 against property owner Dale Lucas, who lets Grass land on his farm -- was canceled when hearing examiner Stanley Shapiro accepted request from Lucas to move the dispute to the county zoning commissioner, a separate zoning office.

The ruling occurred 10 minutes before the zoning violation hearing was scheduled to begin -- and before about 10 Green Spring Valley residents arrived to protest Grass' daily landings.

It was the second time the neighbors were denied a chance to formally testify against Grass' use of the RC-2 zone -- or highly restricted agricultural land -- as a helipad.

A mid-November hearing on the same charge was cut short when Grass' attorney successfully argued that a county zoning inspector had written the wrong name on citations totaling fines of $800.

"This is another stall tactic," said Jack Dillon, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council, an influential Baltimore County land preservation group. "A lot of people are very upset. They live close to the noise and the landings, and didn't get a chance to express their feelings."

Dillon pledged his group would explore ways to help neighbors enforce the zoning -- perhaps by filing for an injunction to halt Grass' daily flights from Helmore Farm, a horse farm on Greenspring Valley Road near Falls Road and near Grass' $2 million estate.

In a public hearing to be held this spring, Lucas attorney Scott Barhight said he plans to argue that Helmore always has contained an airstrip.

That position is disputed by the farm's neighbors, who say documents from the Federal Aviation Administration, Maryland Aviation Administration and county land records show no airstrip designation.

"I wasn't aware that anybody was coming" to testify, said Shapiro, a former county attorney who has been a hearing officer for one year. "It's not like somebody pulled a fast one on them. It's not an unusual situation. They feel frustrated, I guess."

But Shapiro's abrupt action surprised zoning inspector Lavette Bannerman, who also was prepared to testify against Lucas.

"I don't have a clue -- I had no idea this was going on," she said. "I don't know what to say."

Arnold Jablon, director of the Department of Permits and Development Management, defended Shapiro.

"I am not going to allow these hearings to turn into a tug of war. This has to be fair and by due process, and I've got to ensure that these hearings are not circuses," Jablon said.

He added that Lucas' request for a hearing on the airstrip means that the issue must be heard by another county bureaucracy before the zoning violations can be addressed.

Jablon also said he believes Grass is still landing his helicopter in violation of zoning laws and vowed to continue to fine the owner of the landing site $200 a day until the dispute is resolved.

Grass and representatives of First Washington Management Corp. of Silver Spring are negotiating an alternate landing site behind Valley Center, a mall on Reisterstown Road.

Pub Date: 1/08/98

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