Suit seeks to safeguard trout run

Development threatens stream in Jones Falls watershed, neighbors say

July 19, 1999|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Scott Fine and his wife sleep with their bedroom window open each night, listening to the stream behind their Green Spring Valley home. They enjoy the sound so much they keep their window open during the winter and crank up the heat.

But Fine said Dipping Pond Run -- the last stream in the Jones Falls watershed that supports a naturally reproducing brook trout population -- is jeopardized by work on a nearby housing development.

"The stream was pristine when I first got here, and now there's nothing but mud in the middle," Fine said of the stream, east of Falls Road and north of Maryvale Preparatory School. "All the banks have eroded away, and now trees are falling."

Fine and his neighbor Harold Burns Jr. have filed a lawsuit in Baltimore County Circuit Court, saying the development company is violating an agreement made four years ago to preserve the quality of the land and stream.

They are suing Scottish Development Co., MacKenzie Commercial Real Estate Services, Westwicke Homeowners Association and the owners of 27 lots at the Westwicke development. The suit says that since development began in late 1996, the defendants have not followed covenants agreed to in 1995, which include limiting the size of houses and the number of trees cut down.

Robert Aumiller, executive vice president for MacKenzie Commercial Real Estate, declined to comment on the suit. Calls to other defendants were referred to Aumiller.

Baltimore County is one of the state's richest resources for Maryland's 152 trout streams, said Charlie Gougeon, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. But he said many of the county's streams are at risk because of development, population and environmental factors.

Burns said he wants to minimize that risk. That's why he said he "went absolutely ballistic" in 1995 when he looked at the plan developers presented to Baltimore County for development of 30 homes on more than 70 acres of the wooded site, which includes 20 acres of wetlands.

He said he felt the proposed development would destroy the forest and cause sediment to run off into Dipping Pond Run, endangering the brook trout. Cutting trees eliminates a forest buffer between the land and the stream, allowing soil to slide into the stream.

"Brook trout are like the canary in the mine," Burns said. "They need pristine conditions to survive."

The trout are important not only for fishermen but to gauge water quality, said Mark Staley, a DNR fisheries biologist. The Maryland Department of the Environment has determined that streams that can support a natural trout population have the highest water quality.

"If it's a nice place for the trout to live, it's a pretty nice place for us, too," Staley said. "Once you lose water quality, once you lose a trout stream, it's extremely difficult and expensive to try and regain that quality."

Because the stream is a small piece of the Chesapeake Bay's ecosystem, anything that affects it will be felt downstream, Gougeon said.

Development can affect the health of a stream in several ways, environmental officials said.

Runoff from a development site often is heated by pavement, threatening the 68-degree temperature trout need, Staley said. The runoff also can be laden with sediment, which can smother trout eggs and make the stream unsuitable for spawning, he said.

DNR officials last sampled the trout population in Dipping Pond Run in November 1996. The department did not find any trout that hatched in 1996, probably because two major storms in January and September washed away the eggs, Gougeon said.

To preserve the land and stream quality during development, Burns and Fine drafted a set of covenants. In November 1995, the county Board of Appeals approved the covenants and ordered that they be incorporated in the development plan.

Since that agreement was made, Burns and Fine say in their suit, the defendants have broken the covenants by building houses larger than 7,500 square feet and cutting more than 15,000 square feet of trees.

"We kept going around and around in circles, and we could not get it resolved," Fine said. "The last thing you want to do is sue a neighbor."

Burns and Fine said they continue to hear chain saws and excavation equipment. They want the land left alone so the trees can create a buffer for the stream.

"I am of the firm opinion that God will landscape that land better than they will," Burns said. "The forest will find a way to hold itself firm and will do a better job than any man on earth."

Pub Date: 7/19/99

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