Builder, neighbor debate drainage

Each accuses other of being threat to environment

August 17, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

From the beginning, John L. Baker said he was fighting for the environment, trying to save the last undeveloped plot of land in his Ellicott City neighborhood.

But over the years, a drainage pipe on Baker's property off Bonnie View Court has carved a ditch in the 10-acre wooded lot adjacent to his house, dumping unknown quantities of silt into wetlands and streams that feed into the Chesapeake Bay, a developer contends.

Ron Wildman, who wants to develop the 10 acres known as Bonnie Branch Overlook, blames Baker for neglecting the pipe and harming the environment, even after Howard County officials warned Baker about the erosion problem and offered him several options for resolving it.

Wildman wants to build 10 houses on Bonnie Branch Overlook, which is home to streams, woods, wetlands and wildlife. The Howard County Planning Board approved his plans for development in March 1998, but the project became snagged in numerous Board of Appeals meetings after Baker and other neighbors hired a lawyer to fight the development.

The neighbors, who chose Baker as their community spokesman, say the land is environmentally sensitive and should not be developed. In his administrative appeal petition, dated April 24, 1998, Baker wrote that "the grading of slopes and removal of forest and vegetation will result in significant erosion to existing properties and proposed building sites which will pollute the streams, wetlands and floodplains."

County officials say they told Baker several years before about the erosion that he was responsible for and offered him ways to resolve the problem.

Throughout the debate, Baker's lawyer, Thomas E. Dernoga, has painted Baker as an environmentalist and Wildman as one who is threatening trees, animals and the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Wildman says he is the environmentalist and Baker, through negligence, has caused "significant erosion." Wildman said his engineers have calculated that the pipe has washed 100 to 150 dump trucks' worth of dirt into streams that feed into the Chesapeake Bay.

The pipe, which is partly underground and carries rainwater from Bonnie View Court and surrounding properties, ends above ground on Baker's land and drains into Bonnie Branch Overlook.

Baker said he recently received a letter from Wildman's lawyer, Cynthia K. Hitt, threatening to sue. Baker would not comment further.

"I have a lawyer, and we are just getting together on a strategy, so I have no comment at this point," he said.

Wildman declined to comment about a possible lawsuit, but he said he thinks Baker acted irresponsibly by not addressing the drainage problem sooner.

Howard Shieh, an engineering specialist with the Howard County Department of Public Works, said he and another county engineer talked to Baker about the erosion problem several years ago. But the pipe continued to cause erosion.

From the beginning, the concrete pipe, which has an opening smaller than a manhole, has been central to the development debate between Wildman and his Worthington neighbors. Over the years, it has caused a ditch to form that is about 5 feet deep and that, after substantial rain, fills with water that reaches the Chesapeake Bay, Wildman says.

During Board of Appeals hearings in the fall, Wildman called it a "drainage way," and Baker's lawyer, Dernoga, called it an intermittent stream and said Wildman should not be allowed to disturb its buffers.

Wildman says it's a ditch and one of Baker's making.

"Really, the whole issue is there's a serious problem there that they failed to recognize," Wildman said. "What they were arguing and fighting against was really something they created."

Wildman, who owns a company that advises developers on environmental issues, said he had hoped to start developing the property this summer and that the delays have cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Baker and other neighbors are trying to persuade the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks to buy the land from Wildman and turn it into a park.

Mark Raab, operations manager with the Land Management Division of the parks department, said he had spoken with some Worthington residents but that it was premature to talk about county involvement.

Wildman said he would sell the land to the county if county officials were willing to buy it, but he said the land will cost a lot more now than it would have three years ago, before he put so much time and money into efforts to develop it. He said the county probably couldn't afford the land today.

"Communities need to spot these areas sooner," he said, adding, "Nothing's sacred unless you own it."

Pub Date: 8/17/99

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