Housing plan shatters ties in rural area Balto. Co. activist seeks to sell land for luxury development

He's labeled 'a hypocrite'

Neighbors concerned about county review, enforcement policy

January 12, 1998|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Doug McComas stared straight ahead with his arms folded across his chest. All around him, his neighbors were complaining about a plan to build luxury houses on a ridge in rural Baltimore County. But McComas, a gray-haired veteran of many such fights, wasn't saying a word at the community meeting.

This time, it is McComas' land that would be developed.

It is a project that has spurred one neighboring landowner -- the wealthy president of WBFF-TV (Channel 45) -- to launch a campaign raising questions about the county's development review laws and enforcement policies.

Complaints aired at a community meeting last week at the local firehouse showed that the planned Ivy Manor development has splintered old alliances in the county's rural north. Some see McComas, the longtime community activist, as a turncoat in the battle against overdevelopment of Baltimore County's rural north.

"He's a hypocrite," said Sheila Bertoldi, a Towson businesswoman who lives near McComas in the Chestnut Ridge area.

"That's their appreciation for 10 years of work," McComas, who spent a decade as executive director of the Falls Road Community Association, said the morning after the meeting.

"I'm not saying they should lean over backwards to help me. But they shouldn't go out of their way to hurt me, which is what's

happening."

McComas, who resigned from the board of the 400-member community association in response to neighbors' complaints, added: "They just don't want any change."

The proposed Ivy Manor project would include eight houses -- with expected sale prices of more than $700,000 -- on about 33 acres of McComas' land.

A 76-year-old retired engineer who has lived in Chestnut Ridge for more than four decades, McComas has long been a watchdog of developers and their plans. He recalls defeating a proposed shopping center and a major east-west highway many years ago. He proudly points to the negotiations and compromises that removed objectionable elements from other developments over the years.

"I'll take credit for making this community what it is today, because I kept the really bad things from happening," he said.

Critics say McComas is defending a plan that would bring too many houses to the elbow-shaped clearing behind his Falls Road home. They complain that McComas is selling his land for $700,000 to a developer who cleared sections of a "forest buffer" overlooking a stream on the property without getting permission from county environmental officials.

Martha Lessner, a member of the Falls Road Community Association's board of directors, said, "Doug has so much knowledge, he can make this a very responsible development. Why not show the people it can be done the right way?"

Mel Benhoff, who is developing the McComas property, said the pricey houses planned for the project would enhance neighbors' property values. He said he has stabilized the earth in the disturbed areas of the forest buffer, and said opponents' environmental concerns are groundless.

"If, truly, everyone's concerned with the stream, there's no worry," he said during a tour of the property last week. "There's been no erosion from the incursion."

Much of the acrimony can be traced to the clearing of trees and shrubs last fall from areas in the forest buffer in search of well water for the planned homes. The work produced a working well -- but officials cited Benhoff for environmental violations and said he had broken his "well-siting" agreement.

Benhoff said he will ask county officials to allow him to use the working well in the forest buffer.

George G. Perdikakis, director of the county's Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management, said last

week that no decision has been made on whether the developer would be allowed to use that well. He said he will order Benhoff to take further "corrective actions" in the forest buffer once the threat of bad winter weather passes.

Benhoff attributed the violation notice to a "heightened level of politics" and "the caliber of the person complaining" -- clear references to David Smith, a local television executive who has gone to court and to county officials in his fight against the project.

McComas said Smith -- who is president of Sinclair Broadcast Group, owner of Channel 45 and dozens of television and radio stations across the country -- has offered to buy his property.

Smith complained that county development policies lack teeth, because developers do not face fines for many of their violations, and because they are allowed to obtain "variances" to regulations without a public hearing.

Smith, who said he owns about 150 acres in the Chestnut Ridge area, insisted that he is not opposed to development on the McComas property -- so long as it does not cause environmental problems for a bordering stream that feeds Beaverdam Run. Attorney Harold H. Burns Jr. has filed a suit on Smith's behalf against McComas and Benhoff, seeking a judge's order to prevent them from disturbing the forest buffer.

"It's a lot easier for developers to get forgiveness than permission," said Jeff Wolinski, a former plan reviewer in the environmental department who has been hired by Smith as a consultant.

At the community meeting on the Ivy Manor plan, residents argued that the project highlights problems in the county's development approval process.

Through it all, McComas sat silently. Later, he pointed out that he had helped shape the law that made the community meetings part of the development approval process. And he defended Benhoff's work.

"I know how development goes," he said, "and there was nothing different here than with any other development."

Pub Date: 1/12/98

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