Owners watch home turf

Baltimore Co. leaves neighborhood stability to local activists

January 02, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

After fighting for years to improve their struggling neighborhood, Arbutus activists were leery of the sale of a bar with a violent past.

So when businesswoman Irene Lewis asked for a license to run Tubby's Grill & Pub on Maiden Choice Lane, vigilant neighbors pulled Baltimore City records for the Boston Street tavern Lewis owned previously. There they found complaints of under-age and after-hours drinking.

This was news to the Baltimore County Board of Liquor License Commissioners, which had done a background check on Lewis, but never looked at the city file.

The inquiry also tipped off law enforcers. When Lewis arrived in Towson last November for a licensing hearing, she was arrested on a bad-check warrant unrelated to her bar business. She has since backed out of the Tubby's deal.

"Had it not been for our efforts, the liquor board was prepared to rubber stamp the application and let the community deal with the consequences," said Donna Cameron, secretary of the Greater Arbutus Community Alliance.

Cameron's experience underscores a little-discussed fact about life in Baltimore County: The job of maintaining neighborhood stability often falls to the people who live there.

Homeowners pay thousands of dollars a year in taxes to fund a $1.7 billion county government. For that, their children are schooled, their 911 calls answered, their fires extinguished.

But when it comes to keeping their communities orderly, residents must pay again -- with their time, energy and commitment.

Unless a neighbor lodges a complaint, for example, the county won't send inspectors to look for the dilapidated porches, abandoned cars or piles of trash that can drag down a block.

It is neighbors -- not county staffers -- who frequently alert environmental officials when trees are being chopped down illegally by overzealous developers.

And if community members want to know if the person who wants a liquor license has a questionable past, they must sometimes lace up their own gumshoes.

Self-reliance

This philosophy of self-reliance needs to be fine-tuned, says P. David Fields, director of the Office of Community Conservation.

"Until very recently, we just assumed things would monitor themselves," Fields said. "Society has certainly changed very much from the '50s and '60s, when all these policies were put in place. It is government catching up with society."

There are any number of reasons why neighborhoods need more help than in the past, activists say.

Homeowners work long hours, then come home and flick on the television or the computer to unwind. Who has time for civic affairs?

Fraying communities

People move more and know their neighbors less. The ties that once bound communities have grown increasingly frayed.

And as the county's housing stock ages, many landlords have grown lax about upkeep and tenant selection.

All that means the work of neighborhood activists -- the people willing to hold meetings, call their politicians and study government plans -- is growing tougher.

"The majority of communities have very few people who have the time, energy, stubbornness and hard-headedness to do this," said Donna Spicer, president of the Community Conservation Action Group, an umbrella group of Baltimore County associations. "It is a tremendous benefit to have people with the time and energy, but it is a tremendous burden for people to have to do this."

It is a burden residents will continue to carry for the foreseeable future, government officials say.

"Just ask yourself what the alternative is," said Arnold Jablon, director of permits and development management, the department that enforces a wide range of county regulations. "We have 650 square miles. We have 750,000 people. You'd need an inspector on every street. There's no way."

Not enough inspectors

Jablon defends his office's practice of only responding to complaints about untagged vehicles, illegal in-home businesses and unlicensed rooming houses and repair shops -- rather than actively seeking violators.

"We'll never have enough inspectors to do it," Jablon said. "You have to have your priorities. Are we going to put code-enforcement ahead of policing?"

Many neighborhoods are content with violations in their midst, Jablon said. For example, unlicensed crabbing violates county regulations, but cracking down on a practice common along the shores of Chesapeake Bay "would be creating a revolution," Jablon said.

Like code enforcers, inspectors in the county Department of Environment and Resource Protection are stretched thin.

That's why Susanne Felser, a veterinarian from Glyndon, alerted county officials when she spotted construction crews cutting down trees at Camp Glyndon, recently purchased by the Beth Tfiloh congregation.

She says she didn't mind taking the initiative rather than waiting for the county to discover the problem. "I live right next to the property where this is going on. I have this vested interest," she said.

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