Rezoning issue divides allies in Harford Backers of referendum trade recriminations with gadfly activist

March 15, 1998|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

It started with icy glares and quickly escalated into the "e-mail wars."

On one side stands Rommel Crabtree, an outspoken, self-described "ultra-radical" Harford County activist best known for battling illegal real estate signs. On the other, a group of residents who successfully fought to give voters a say on the most controversial local issue in years.

Crabtree -- a man more accustomed to challenging the establishment -- says he has been labeled "Benedict Rommel" and ostracized by many of his former allies for his high-profile opposition to a referendum on comprehensive rezoning.

"I've been told by those in the gossip mill that I am the Judas Iscariot of rezoning," said Crabtree, whom some have accused of collusion with the politicians and developers he has fought in the past. "People have called me a fanatic over the issues I have dealt with, but some of these people are fanatics who demonize anyone who disagrees with them."

In a county where growth is a hotly debated issue, the flap illustrates the intensity of emotion that can be stirred over land use and politics.

Despite the developments and strip malls that give some areas a suburban look, Harford County retains a small-town feel in many ways. And, as in many small towns, zoning issues can pit neighbor against neighbor.

The fuse in this case was comprehensive rezoning, a process that takes place every eight years in Harford and allows property owners to request zoning changes for their land.

Opponents said the final rezoning package approved in September did not reflect the desires of residents, would increase development and would worsen traffic and school crowding.

Enter Crabtree, an activist who has been charged criminally with destroying roadside real estate signs and is the target of a lawsuit by a company that uses those signs to direct prospective buyers to their developments.

A fixture at County Council meetings, Crabtree has been viewed as a zealot and gadfly by many. But he confounded many observers by supporting the council's rezoning decisions.

Opposing him is a group of residents known as Voters Against Overdevelopment. Composed of residents from all over the county, the organization collected in December more than 9,000 signatures on petitions that will take comprehensive rezoning to the ballot in November.

Rumors of payoffs and personal attacks have abounded from both camps. Combatants snub each other at council and community meetings, and e-mail messages debating the issue have flown furiously. Feelings are bruised on both sides.

"Separate from the anger, I feel a sense of disappointment," Crabtree said. "These are people I have worked closely with, and did not expect to be treated like this."

Jan Stinchcomb, a member of Voters Against Overdevelopment, said Crabtree has made it a point to go after those who disagree with him.

"I am very disappointed in Rommel," said Stinchcomb, whose organization voted to support a referendum but split on whether to initiate the referendum drive. "I think he has been very contradictory in his issues, and while I respect his right to see things differently, what bothered me is the fact that he took very personal attacks against people."

When the pro-referendum faction began collecting petition signatures in December, Crabtree showed up at one of the locations to urge people not to sign.

When it circulated literature on the referendum, Crabtree took out an advertisement in the local newspaper advising people "Don't Buy The Lie," and he accused the group of misleading residents to get their signatures.

Grace Hiter, a member of Voters Against Overdevelopment, said many are confused about Crabtree's apparent change of heart. Crabtree seemed to shift to supporting the rezoning after a parcel of land in his community had its zoning made more strict, Hiter said.

Crabtree bristles at the suggestion that he has changed his position because of personal interest or was paid by developers to support the rezoning bill. He said he believes that the rezoning bill as passed was much more conservative than expected and that voting down the bill threatens to open the gates to more development.

"I put that ad on my credit card and went into debt because of it," Crabtree said. "For someone to say that the developers are paying me is an insult, and it's stupid. The developers want this bill killed because it makes it easier for them to get the zoning they want." With comprehensive rezoning in limbo, rezoning applicants could have their cases heard by a zoning administrator, which Crabtree believes would make zoning changes easier.

Crabtree has found his position supported by some unlikely allies. Bob Lynch, a land-use lawyer who represented several clients with rezoning requests and has often opposed Crabtree, said he believes Crabtree is "taking a sort of big-picture view" of rezoning and is encouraging other residents to do the same.

The disagreement stems from residents' disillusionment with change in the county, said referendum supporter Val Twanmoh.

"Harford County has experienced so many growing pains in such a short amount of time that the county is not what it used to be, and that can be quite unsettling," Twanmoh said. "It was very disheartening to see the hostility that arose toward the people who supported the referendum."

Christopher Cook, co-chairman of Friends of Harford and a member of Voters Against Overdevelopment, said the disagreement is a result of "philosophical differences and personality conflicts."

"There are certainly several sides to this issue, and tensions run high in these kinds of things," Cook said. "Certainly, a lot of people believe that he is a traitor, but I believe that people who think that are overreacting."

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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