`Little guys' set their sights on developers

Neighbors sacrifice time and money to thwart projects

`Miracles can happen'

February 08, 2000|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

In the battle over development in Maryland, David is giving Goliath a run for his money.

That's because the little guy -- a term neighborhood activists use to describe themselves -- is becoming increasingly cunning. Community groups are waging costly lawsuits, organizing sophisticated phone campaigns, staging rallies and basically doing whatever it takes to be heard.

In highly publicized cases, activists have thwarted plans for an auto speedway in Middle River, a residential community in Charles County and a football stadium in Laurel. Fighting continues across the state over other proposals, including the expansion of Towson University's stadium and a village-style development in southeastern Howard County.

Such efforts often involve substantial personal and financial costs, and bring no guarantee of victory. But those waging the battles say even a remote possibility of success is worth the sacrifice.

"No doubt about it, it takes a dedicated individual who also feels strongly about the purpose," said Gregory Fries, 39, a Howard County resident who helped appeal a zoning board ruling that would allow 522 acres in North Laurel to be developed into houses, condominiums and businesses.

"For me, I think it is better to have tried and failed than to never have tried at all," Fries said.

Ninety percent of development projects nationwide are completed without a hitch, according to Community & Environmental Defense Service (CEDS), a Baltimore County-based organization that dispenses advice to and finds experts for neighborhood groups in land use battles. Ten percent are disputed, and a small percentage of those result in drawn-out legal battles.

"If you feel like your home or your family is being directly threatened, fighting a development project almost becomes an obsession," said Richard Klein, who heads CEDS.

That can mean taking young children from zoning hearing to zoning hearing, spending hours phoning legislators and walking door-to-door with petitions. It might also mean organizing raffles to pay for legal fees and reaching deep into one's own pocket to preserve land and property.

"Personally, I have spent a couple thousand dollars fighting this just by donating postage and buying copies for fliers," said Fries, owner of a service station maintenance company and the chairman of the Southern Howard Land Use Committee.

The group has spent more than $40,000 trying to block the North Laurel project and another proposed housing development nearby. Hearings before county boards are continuing.

Some groups organize knowing there's little chance they will prevail.

Janice Moore and her neighbors have been fighting plans to double the seating capacity of Towson University's stadium for more than a year.

"We know we're not going to win this," said Moore, 43, who helped launch a letter-writing campaign and petition drive against the stadium. "Will we quit trying? Absolutely not. Miracles can happen.

"In the end, when it all goes wrong, we want to be able to say `We told you this would happen.' "

Stubbornness and a belief in small wonders can pay off. That's what happened in Anne Arundel County a few years ago.

An effort there to prevent 477 acres of wetlands and open space from being developed into 152 homes took 12 years, a multimillion-dollar libel suit and dozens of rallies. Members of the South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development Inc., or SACReD, also waged a mini-guerrilla war against the developer by erecting brightly colored road signs reading: "For Sale: Our Future," and "Danger: Growth Zone Ahead."

The campaign cost more than $50,000.

In the end, whether because of passage of time or sheer persistence, SACReD won. The group persuaded the county and state to buy the land and preserve it.

"We can't even begin to describe the time donated to the cause," said Amanda Spake, a SACReD member. "We had half a million dollars worth of attorneys fees donated to us. But we kept going because we always had a glimmer of winning.

"These battles are the cutting edge of grass-roots politics now. It shows that we can make a difference."

That might explain why so many people keep trying, despite the odds.

After four years of confrontation, residents in Queen Anne's County recently blocked the construction of a rubble landfill in neighboring Kent County. But there was no time to celebrate; the company proposing the project is taking the community of Unicorn back to court.

"I bet I've written thousands of letters in the last four years," said Loretta Walls, 60, who has helped raise thousands of dollars from community auctions, bake sales, yard sales and raffles to pay court costs. "The residents here have done so much research on landfills, we could be experts.

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