Official known for his `Old World' love of land

Balto. Co. bureaucrat's roots in smart growth of native Greece

July 12, 1999|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

Standing by the side of a winding, two-lane road in northern Baltimore County, George Perdikakis looks over miles of nature's green cathedral known as Worthington Valley.

Such a vista could be transplanted from Perdikakis' native Greece, where as a youth he learned to love the land and its bounty while pruning and harvesting in the small olive grove owned by his yia yia on Crete.

For nearly four years as head of Baltimore County's Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management, he has drawn upon those roots as he walks the often delicate line between land preservation and development.

"He has an Old World, realistic love of the land," said John Bernstein, director of the Maryland Environmental Trust, a state preservation agency that holds easements on 9,728 acres in Baltimore County and 63,700 acres in Maryland.

Politically savvy and well-connected, this perennial bureaucrat, who has held a trifecta of city, state and county jobs, stands out as a colorful advocate for Baltimore County, this year seeking nearly two-thirds of the $25 million available in state Rural Legacy grants to be awarded in September.

"We are committed to preservation," Perdikakis recently told the Rural Legacy board as he lobbied for $16 million on behalf of four diverse parts of the county -- Piney Run, Long Green Valley, a coastal region along Back River Neck and the Gunpowder River watershed.

"We really believe we are models for Smart Growth here in Baltimore County," he explained, referring to the statewide initiative to direct tax dol lars toward areas where roads, sewer and other public services exist.

By whatever name, Perdikakis says he has been living with smart growth for most of his 51 years.

The concept -- a centerpiece environmental issue on the national political agenda -- was part of the culture in Greece where thousands of small villages and towns have maintained their rural character and the country's business activity is focused largely in Athens and Piraeus.

Little did Perdikakis know when he immigrated to the United States at age 18 that his professional legacy here would be set by promoting a way of life that came so naturally in his native land.

"My job is just beginning to put the pristine areas into conservancy," he said. "It's like the appreciation of a tree, an olive tree that you see grow and fill with olives. Then you strip it and make olive oil and the cycle starts again. It needs some loving care that says, `If you take care of me, I will take care of you' -- and that's what it is all about."

Respect from both sides

Such a mission has earned Perdikakis respect outside Towson, though his boss, County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, has a mixed reputation as a conservationist.

"Preserving rural areas as a whole seems a much larger challenge given the county's current political priorities," says Bernstein.

Preservationists and developers agree that Perdikakis listens.

"The best way to characterize him is tough, but he will always give you an opportunity to be heard, which is unique in the environmental community," said Stuart Kaplow, a Towson attorney who frequently represents county developers.

"He has an open door approach to things," said C. Victoria Woodward, a community activist from Upperco and member of the Piney Run Preservation Association.

In addition to rural and agricultural preservation, Perdikakis' office routinely tackles other environmental demands that have included a potentially costly federal Superfund cleanup in Rosedale, extension of public sewer lines into Back River, border spats with Carroll County over sewage discharged by a county treatment plant into the Piney Run watershed, and erosion problems on the Patapsco River near Catonsville.

He also helped initiate a sweeping, three-year study of the Gunpowder River watershed that is nearing completion.

Hands-on style

A busy agenda, coupled with his tenacious hands-on, get-out-of-the-office style, leaves Perdikakis at times stretched thin.

He's known for mood swings that include boisterous temper tantrums that reverberate from his small office filled with family photos, Greek and American flags and a wall of diplomas from the University of Rhode Island, the Johns Hopkins University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Arriving there each day about 7: 30 a.m., he is never far from a telephone, especially his constantly chirping cell phone.

"He's truly an American success story," said Baltimore Circuit Judge John C. Themelis, who serves on the parish council of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Highlandtown, where Perdikakis has been board president for six years.

"As impatient as he is, there are people on the board who are less patient. He's able to calm everybody down and get consensus through old-fashioned Greek politicking."

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