Irked neighbors try leaving developer no way out

He lacks road to build $750,000 homes on his land near Hunt Valley

June 30, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Developer Melvin C. Benhoff Jr. is itching to build a neighborhood of luxury houses, but he's run into a problem.

His neighbors in northern Baltimore County are trying to blockade his landlocked property.

They won't grant him a crucial 20-foot right of way needed to connect his planned Ivy Manor development to a public road -- even though he's spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy the property.

"It's our only way of stopping it," said John Love, a neighboring property owner. "If the only issue involves crossing privately owned property, then use the issue. Put the gun barrels up."

At stake is the future of a rural ridge that is zoned for residential development in an area where prime building land is increasingly in demand.

Opponents complain that the plan would crowd eight houses onto a portion of the 33-acre parcel, off Falls Road in Chestnut Ridge, a small neighborhood south of Hunt Valley's Oregon Ridge Park.

Benhoff, however, says he would raise property values in the area by building an attractive neighborhood of houses with price tags starting at $750,000.

"Why would these people want to stop something like this?" he asked. "They know the type of job I do, and they know it will be right."

Benhoff, whose property has about 2 inches of frontage on Ivy Hill Road, said he took the unusual step of settling on the purchase before securing the right of way because of a deadline in the sales contract. He said he is confident that he will be granted an easement allowing him to build.

Since Ivy Manor was proposed in 1997, it has created tension in Chestnut Ridge.

Doug McComas -- for decades a watchdog of developers and their plans -- was criticized by neighbors for agreeing to sell the land for development. McComas, angered by his neighbors' opposition, resigned from the Falls Road Community Association's board.

Later, as Benhoff sought to prepare the land for development, he was cited for environmental violations.

Last summer, during a meeting with Love, surveyor Joel Leininger noticed that the property owners had signed an agreement with McComas allowing everyone to use small portions of each other's property for a driveway.

But the agreement required that any improvements -- such as the public road that Benhoff proposed as a connection to Ivy Hill Road -- be approved by a majority vote of the property owners, Leininger said.

The Loves and their neighbors, the Kelbaughs, own narrow "panhandle" strips that follow a private drive from their homes to Ivy Hill Road. They don't want to clear the way for Benhoff's project.

In January, county hearing officer Lawrence E. Schmidt approved Benhoff's plan -- on the condition that a Circuit Court judge decide whether the developer has access to the right of way. But Judge James T. Smith denied Benhoff's request to move forward.

Benhoff then came up with a plan to build a private road connecting his land with Ivy Hill Road, so that neighbors wouldn't be asked to deed a portion of their property for a public road. His lawyer, G. Scott Barhight, argued that the existing easements would give access to build the private road.

When both sides met last week in a Towson hearing room, Barhight produced documents from a title attorney to support that argument. A county official then testified he was satisfied the project had access to Ivy Hill Road.

Another official, however, said the design of the private road raised questions about safety.

Schmidt said during the hearing that he was likely to once again require a judge to decide the controversy. But Barhight predicted that Schmidt will rule in Benhoff's favor after all.

"That," said the lawyer, "is our hope."

Pub Date: 6/30/99

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