County says no to Benhoff proposal

Inadequate road plan blocks developer's bid to construct luxury homes

August 05, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

A hearing officer has denied a proposal to build a neighborhood of luxury houses in northern Baltimore County, handing a victory to a group of residents trying to prevent the project by blockading the developer's landlocked lot.

In an order released yesterday, county hearing officer Lawrence E. Schmidt ruled that the developer of the proposed Ivy Manor development has failed to find a satisfactory way to connect the proposed neighborhood to a public road.

Schmidt's ruling marks the latest setback for developer Melvin C. Benhoff Jr. in his 2-year-long bid to build eight houses on a 33-acre parcel in Chestnut Ridge, a small community south of Hunt Valley's Oregon Ridge Park.

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

`Poorly designed'

Benhoff's revamped plans to reach the nearest public road by a private drive could conceivably overcome the legal challenges he has faced in gaining a right of way, but the new approach made for a "poorly designed" intersection that did not meet county safety standards, Schmidt ruled.

"There is no doubt that the design of the proposed private road is flawed," Schmidt wrote in his eight-page order. "I find it inadequate. Thus, the amended plan must be denied."

Benhoff has said he would raise property values in the area by building an attractive neighborhood of houses with prices starting at $750,000. He took the unusual step of settling on the $700,000 purchase of the property last year before receiving development plan approval.

Neighbors complain that the plan would crowd homes onto a portion of Benhoff's land.

In addition, Benhoff has been cited for environmental violations while preparing the land for development.

Unusual strategy

Last year, neighbors employed an unusual strategy to try to halt the plan, refusing to grant Benhoff a crucial 20-foot right of way across their narrow "panhandle" lots, which the developer needed to connect a proposed road in Ivy Manor to Ivy Hill Road, the nearest public road.

Benhoff's property has only about 2 inches of frontage on Ivy Hill Road.

In January, Schmidt approved Benhoff's plan -- on the condition that a Circuit Court judge review title documents and decide whether the developer has access to the right of way. But Benhoff came up with a new plan that uses a private road, rather than the public road that he had previously proposed.

In his ruling, Schmidt called the change "ingenious" and said an argument could be made that the move eliminated legal challenges to the right of way. But the new design created side-by-side driveways leaning to Ivy Manor Road. A county traffic official objected to the design.

Benhoff's lawyer, G. Scott Barhight, said yesterday that no decision has been made on whether the order would be appealed.

Asked whether Benhoff might go to court to press the legal argument on the right-of-way issue, Barhight said, "That's an option."

Fight expected to continue

John Love, a neighboring property owner and opponent of the project, applauded yesterday's ruling, saying, "It's a small step or, hopefully, a big step toward trying to curb this kind of development. I'm happy with it, not only for ourselves but for the county in general."

But he said he doubts that the battle is over, adding, "I can't imagine a guy putting up that kind of money and having that much at stake just walking away."

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