Ruppersberger gains on redevelopment bill

Essex residents angry as House panel OKs condemnation power

March 31, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron and David Nitkin | Thomas W. Waldron and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Fending off a tough challenge from well-organized residents and business owners, Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger won a critical victory yesterday in his quest for condemnation power to redevelop Essex-Middle River and two other aging county neighborhoods.

A House of Delegates committee approved Ruppersberger's condemnation legislation by a surprisingly narrow 13-8 margin after an emotional voting session that lasted nearly three hours. Final approval by the General Assembly could come in the next few days.

Even members of the Commerce and Government Matters Committee who voted with Ruppersberger seemed to have little enthusiasm for the proposal, which could displace scores of businesses and residents, some of whom have become angry fixtures around the State House.

Many lawmakers, though, ended up supporting the measure out of deference to the wishes of the Baltimore County legislative delegation, which in turn had yielded to Ruppersberger's desire for the new power.

"What we went through today and last week has been a very, very trying experience for each and every one of us," said Del. John F. Wood Jr., the committee chairman. "I feel bad. I hope to God we don't wake up in two years" and regret the vote, he said.

The bill gives the county authority to take properties at more than 300 addresses in the Essex-Middle River waterfront area, the Yorkway area in Dundalk and parts of the Liberty Road corridor.

The land would be sold or given to developers.

While county officials say the proposal is more narrowly focused than similar power granted previously to Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George's counties, opponents say the Baltimore County government is overstepping its authority.

"I look at it as reverse Robin Hood, where we take from the middle class and give to the rich," said Del. B. Daniel Riley, an Edgewood Democrat who voted against the bill.

Objections have been strongest in the Middle River area, where residents accuse the county of planning to destroy a solid working- and middle-class neighborhood to make room for an upscale development.

After the vote, Ruppersberger said the legislation is an important tool for economic development that would improve the lives of even those opposed to it.

"These are all my constituents, and I am committed to treating everybody impacted by the bill fairly and with sensitivity," he said.

Ruppersberger's win did not come easily. He spent countless hours with lawmakers in recent days, arguing the legislation's merits.

Efforts on both sides grew so intense that Wood, the committee chairman, vehemently refused to delay a vote as some legislators wanted.

"I will not sit here having my committee badgered like they've been badgered this week," Wood said. "They've listened to and been badgered by both sides, and they've had enough."

Some committee members said they were told that local projects they supported would not be approved until Senate Bill 509 passed.

Del. Louise V. Snodgrass, a Frederick County Republican, said a bill she is backing to preserve a Civil War battlefield in her district was stuck in another committee because of her refusal to support the Baltimore County proposal.

"I resent the fact that that bill is being held hostage," she said.

Referendum sought

Opponents concede that they are unlikely to derail the legislation, which now goes to the full House of Delegates. But they are hoping to gather enough signatures for a countywide referendum in November.

"We're going to take it to referendum, no matter what," said Del. Diane DeCarlo, a Democrat who represents the Middle River area and has become the measure's leading critic.

A ballot measure would require opponents to gather petition signatures from more than 24,100 registered Baltimore County voters by June 30.

Ruppersberger said he would not talk about a potential referendum until after the bill receives final approval.

Yesterday's committee hearing was dominated by a fierce counterattack from DeCarlo, who earned applause from her colleagues even after they rejected a series of amendments she offered.

DeCarlo tried to get Essex-Middle River addresses removed from the bill and attempted to have the condemnation authority expire in four years rather than seven. She tried to make the county pay owners 25 percent above the fair market value of their property and tried to create a task force to study the issue.

Each effort was unsuccessful, with DeCarlo growing increasingly red-faced with every defeat.

Residents react

After the final tally, Jigantree Pasram, who owns a convenience store on Old Eastern Avenue and lives in a home that could be condemned, burst into tears and left the committee room.

"I don't want to move from where I live. I have a brand new home," she cried. "I don't want to live anymore."

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