Activists work hard on Iager issue

Some who oppose farm's development devote many hours

March 13, 2000|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

It's a Wednesday evening and Peter Oswald is extremely pressed for time.

After dashing to his Beaufort Park home from his job as an auditor with the federal government, Oswald quickly greets his family as his mind swirls with the details of the long night ahead. Dinner -- if he is lucky -- is his wife's homemade vegetable soup, which he gulps down microwave hot before rushing off to the meetings he has faithfully attended since Sept. 1.

Oswald is one of several community activists who have been battling the proposed development of the Iager farm in southwestern Howard County. As the meetings roll into their sixth month -- making it the longest-running case ever heard by the Howard County Zoning Board -- some residents who oppose the project have devoted countless hours to prevent it from being built.

"Being a grandfather, I would love to be able to spend more time with my granddaughter and my family," said Oswald, 51, vice president of the Greater Beaufort Park Community Association. "But I feel like I've made a commitment to this and I have to see it through."

For 27 meetings, opponents, supporters and lawyers have met before the Zoning Board, listening to hours of testimony as both sides present their cases. At the center of the sometimes-heated debate is the approval of a site development plan for the mixed-use project to be built on the 507-acre turkey farm in Fulton.

The proposed Maple Lawn Farms, with its plan for commercial space and almost 1,200 residential units, sparked controversy almost from the beginning. At times, tensions have run high, and it has led to a rift in the community between the Iager family and some residents who complain that a mixed-use development does not fit with the character of the area.

Opponents say that conviction has fueled their passion and sustained their determination to fight despite limited resources and the boredom that can set in as the hearings have dragged on.

"It hasn't been fun, but I made the determination to stick with it," said Tom Flynn, a married father of two who has missed only one meeting and who serves as the president of the North Laurel Civic Association. "Over the years, our civic association has fought different developments, and we've been able to hold our own."

For Oswald, fighting the good fight has meant at least 20 hours a week devoted to maintaining a database of supporters, organizing the order of who will testify against the project and studying county zoning regulations.

His wife of 28 years, Sally Oswald, said her husband balances that while dealing with family responsibilities such as caring for their elderly parents and spending time with their two children and grandchild.

"It definitely has taken on a life of its own," Sally Oswald said. "It's a dedicated group of people that has put in their time, heart and energy into this. Even if we don't win, we have to at least try."

The residents' efforts have even garnered respect from Stewart J. Greenebaum, who proposed the Iager farm development. Greenebaum said opponents set out to delay the project and "have invested an inordinate amount of time" in doing just that.

"In my mind, in one respect it's good for people to be activists and to fight for what they believe in," Greenebaum said. "But on the other hand, the point at which the time should have been invested was when the land was zoned" for mixed use.

The Howard County Council doubles as the Zoning Board, and board Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel/Savage Democrat, said he and the others do their best to pay close attention to testimony. While some take notes and others study exhibits presented by both sides, they all take seriously their responsibility in settling the dispute, Guzzone said.

"We have a very important job to do, and I think that listening carefully to everyone's comments is very important," Guzzone said. "It does get distracting at times when there are multiple objections, but I think the tone generally has been excellent."

And though no one expected the marathon hearings, some view it as an example of county government at work.

"The main point of having a hearing is that everyone gets to have their say," said John Adolphsen, a resident opposed to the development.

The next Zoning Board hearing to address the Iager farm project will be at 7 p.m. March 22 in the George Howard Building, Ellicott City.

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