Uncertainty grows in path of renewal

Condemnation: A redevelopment plan has businesses and residents in three Baltimore County neighborhoods looking for answers.

March 02, 2000|By Joe Nawrozki and David Nitkin | Joe Nawrozki and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The steel security bar clangs as Margaret Adelung, clad in an orange house dress, three sweaters and tattered pink slippers, opens the front door to her stark studio apartment.

The folding metal chair, the aging black-and-white television and the bed covered with bath towels neatly pinned together as improvised blankets will be packed away. Baltimore County says the Essex apartment complex Adelung has called home for 20 years is so infested with drugs and crime that it must be torn down.

"I have no one," said the 80-year-old homemaker who lives in the Villages of Tall Trees. "I have nowhere to go."

Adelung is among hundreds of county residents, from middle-class merchants to the working poor and those on public assistance, who will be forced in coming months to find new homes and business locations as the county embarks on the most ambitious redevelopment plan in its history.

For the first time, county officials are seeking the authority to act as a private developer, purchasing land and selling it back or transferring it to builders. Officials are targeting three neighborhoods they say need the most help -- Essex-Middle River, Dundalk and Randallstown.

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger envisions dreary apartments being replaced by single-family homes, liquor stores and bars giving way to trendy restaurants, and shabby auto garages being torn down for parks and ball fields.

Last week, the plan cleared its first hurdles when the county's state Senate delegation and the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee approved legislation granting the county power to condemn and acquire dozens of properties in the three communities.

While final legislative approval is expected by Friday and the county awaits word on whether it will receive $22 million in state funds to proceed with land-buying, the project appears to be moving steadily toward reality -- despite the fact that many of those affected are only just beginning to learn about it.

As the news spreads in neighborhoods historically distrustful of government programs, fear, cynicism and misinformation are percolating to the surface.

County officials insist they plan to condemn only the 312 addresses listed in the legislation, but residents and business owners are afraid the county's authority could be expanded to homes and buildings not on the list.

Landowners fear they won't be reimbursed enough to move, despite a state law that requires the county to pay fair market value plus moving expenses and relocation fees. In some scenarios, property owners can receive as much as $22,500 and tenants $5,250 in relocation fees.

Among the most repeated concerns are that the plan would radically alter the face of traditional blue-collar neighborhoods, especially on the east side, where tens of thousands of jobs were lost in the steel and auto industries.

Many remain angry at being told that those neighborhoods are slums.

David Kimmel, 52, remembers spending every summer at his Punte Lane cottage on Middle River. The former executive chef at the Belvedere Hotel has lived in the out-of-the-way spot since 1978, a place slated for condemnation by the county.

"This isn't the swank of Charles Street, but it's certainly no slum," Kimmel said.

Others, however, embrace the planned changes.

"This has been talked about for years and now is the time to give a grand old neighborhood a new future," said Robert L. McKinney, president of the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce, who was born and raised in Essex.

Wayne Miskiewicz, president of the Marine Trades Association, a group of marina owners in the county, called the proposal "an exciting renaissance."

"This plan will elevate the entire area," he said. "It's a quality-of-life issue."

Ruppersberger wants to create a waterfront destination for tourists at the headwaters of Middle River, complete with spruced-up marinas and riverfront restaurants.

The Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce will hold a public meeting in about two weeks to "explain to residents and other members of the public exactly how the condemnation process will work," said Robert D'Antonio, chamber president, whose group of 300 businesses has endorsed the plan.

"What this effort has lacked so far are specifics for the people affected," D'Antonio said.

County officials say they've designed a condemnation plan that is limited to the properties listed in the bill and have no intention of seeking broader authority.

Nothing will happen fast, officials say. Property owners will receive formal notice that the county wants to buy their land, but that might not happen for months or years, depending on when money is available.

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