Racquet club owners sue Balto. County

They allege new law would keep them from developing site

Suits ask for millions

Greenspring facility would be replaced by offices, parking

February 02, 1999|By Eric Siegel and Dennis O'Brien | Eric Siegel and Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The owners of Greenspring Racquet Club have sued Baltimore County in federal and state court, charging that a new law designed to limit growth at Falls Road just north of Interstate 695 deprives them of the right to develop their land.

The suits by William and Loretta Hirshfeld in U.S. District Court in Baltimore and in Baltimore County Circuit Court seek injunctions preventing the county from enforcing the law, which they call unconstitutional.

They also seek millions of dollars in damages because of the law's effect on their 5.5-acre tract, where they would like to replace the club with offices and parking.

"The law prevented my clients from moving forward with a perfectly acceptable plan for their property," said Julius W. Lichter, an attorney for the Hirshfelds and a member of the law firm of Peter G. Angelos.

Last fall, the county, worried about the expansion of commercial development at the gateway to the scenic Green Spring Valley, enacted legislation to make it more difficult to build shops and offices at Falls and Greenspring Valley roads.

The law -- supported by residents concerned about increased traffic -- requires a county hearing officer to approve construction of any building taller than 35 feet that is within 750 feet of a rural conservation area. It exempts areas designated for development, including White Marsh and Owings Mills.

The Hirshfelds want to raze their barn-like, 22-year-old tennis, racquetball and fitness club and replace it with two office buildings and a parking garage. Separately, Foxleigh Enterprises, developer of the adjacent Greenspring Station office and retail center, has announced plans for an eight-story complex to be built on a parking lot.

In addition to the county and its director of permits and development management, both suits name as defendants the five council members who voted for the law and remain in office.

Dundalk Democrat Louis L. DePazzo, who was the measure's only opponent, was defeated in his bid for re-election.

County Council Chairman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Democrat representing the Pikesville-Liberty Road corridor, who was named as a defendant, declined to comment yesterday.

County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, the Owings Mills Republican who sponsored the legislation, said the action was no surprise.

"I would have been surprised if they didn't sue, but I haven't seen the suit itself, so I can't comment on it," McIntire said.

Michael H. Davis, a spokesman for Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, declined to comment on the suits other than to say he is confident that the county ordinance meets the necessary constitutional requirements.

Jack Dillon, executive director of Valleys Planning Council, who represented the council and about a dozen other community groups that lobbied for the law last fall, said the measure does not deprive the Hirshfelds of the use of their land. It sets up safeguards to ensure the land is used properly, he said.

"The requirements leave them with quite a few things they could do with that parcel," Dillon said.

Stuart Kaplow, a lawyer for Foxleigh, which is not a party to the suits, said yesterday, "We've not made a determination of how to proceed."

In the federal suit, filed Friday, the Hirshfelds said the county law was designed to single out two properties -- the racquet club and Greenspring Station -- and claim it unfairly deprives them of equal treatment and due process under the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

"Such disparate treatment is arbitrary and capricious and has no rational basis," the suit said.

Noting that the property on which the racquet club sits is zoned for major businesses, and that roads and water and sewer lines are adequate to support the new development, the Hirshfelds contend that they have been "unconstitutionally precluded from economically viable and reasonable uses" of their land.

The suit seeks $5 million in damages on each of nine counts.

In a separate action filed Friday in Baltimore County Circuit Court, the Hirshfelds say the law "fails to advance a legitimate public purpose," and it constitutes a "taking" of their land because it deflates their property value.

The Hirshfelds seek $5 million in damages under the county suit, and claim their property value has decreased by that amount because of the law.

The County Council enacted the law 6-1, after residents said the development would strain sewer systems and increase traffic problems.

Sun staff writer Liz Atwood contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/02/99

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